Theater life provides enrichment for seniors


Bob Robinson has been active in the Greater Lansing theater community since the “early ‘80s.” He was a co-founder of Grand Ledge’s now-defunct Spotlight Theatre  alongside the late Len Kluge, who was also a theater reviewer for City Pulse. But at 75, Robinson’s life has changed dramatically.

He’s retired from prosecuting ordinance violations and doing defense work and general legal work. Four years ago, he and his wife, Suzanne, bought a home in a gated senior community in Florida. Now they spend their winter months “doing things you can’t do in the winter in Michigan.”

But it’s come with a shift in dynamics. The theater community Robinson helped nurture, where many of his friendships were built, is out of reach for much of the traditional theater season. He tried auditioning for a show in Florida in an attempt to build community in the Sunshine State.

“It was a unique experience auditioning for a theater group that I had absolutely no connection with,” he said. “It was very enlightening, to say the least.”

He laughed at the thought of his failed audition because he understands the dynamics.

“They worked over the years with people they’re familiar and comfortable with,” he said. “So it’s difficult for an outsider, regardless of the credits you have, regardless of your resume, regardless of how many shows you’ve been in, how many parts you’ve played, how many theaters you’ve worked with, how many shows you’ve directed and so on. It’s difficult to break into a new family.”

Family is the closest approximation one can find to describe the friendships and relationships decades of community theater forge. The fear of letting that family down is one reason Mark Zussman, 87, said he has stepped back from performing in shows where he has to remember lines. During a performance of “Harvey,” he lost his footing.

“It was terrifying,” he said. “It was more than just forgetting a line or missing a cue for a next line. They just weren’t there.”

He said he was “saved” by his wife, Jane Zussman, and theater veteran Laura Croff.

“I would not want to put any other actors through that because you depend on other actors,” he said.

He now performs only in Audio Air Force shows. The company produces dramas from the golden age of radio plays. Actors don’t have to memorize lines since they have scripts in their hands.

“I’m grateful for the fact that it exists. If it wasn’t here, I’d just have to go cold turkey,” he said.

It’s not that Zussman doesn’t have experience with other aspects of theater — he’s directed shows and done other technical work, but acting is something special for him. He’s been doing it since he was 13.

Mark and Jane Zussman noted that 90% or more of their friends were made through theater. They meet every Saturday for lunch at a local eatery. It’s a way to connect, share and remember.

The couple met during Spotlight Theatre’s production of “Plaza Suite.” They played a married couple that was headed for divorce.

“We got to know each other. You get to know whether the person’s dependable,” Jane Zussman said. “We kept running into each other. We didn’t get married for about five years after that, but he had seen my children, and they were about 5, 7 and 9 at that point.”

Linda Granger, who just turned 70, has been involved with community theater throughout her entire life. She’s been the artistic director of Starlight Dinner Theatre since she founded it in 2005. The company performs shows that draw an older crowd.

Granger keeps the company open for her audience, despite struggles at times to find actors. As the country pulled out of COVID-19 lockdowns, she took a year to contemplate the future of the company. Should she continue?

“It came down to one thing. It’s not for me. It’s not for the money. It’s for the audience,” she said. “They have nowhere to go.”

Those patrons tell her how glad they are that the company is still around because they like the types of shows it performs. They tend to be classics like “Harvey” or “West Side Story.” There’s little cursing or sex, if any. It’s a sanitized world that feels comfortable in comparison to the more cutting-edge, in-your-face works that other theaters produce. Neither categorization is a knock on the other — there’s just a generational gap for some in terms of what theater should and could be.

But Starlight’s struggle, Granger said, is attracting new, younger talent. As the director of the company’s outdoor production of “West Side Story” last summer, Granger said she felt, for the first time in her theater life, that she was “intruding” on other company members. During breaks, the youths would separate and socialize together.

“I really felt like I couldn’t relate to them, and they couldn’t relate to me,” she said with a tinge of regret in her voice. “It was kind of sad to me. I thought it was a real eye-opener.”

Granger was hesitant to discuss this isolation, fearing it would come off as a criticism of the young people who performed in the show.

“I love those kids. I am thankful to them for how hard they worked and that they even auditioned,” she said with a laugh.

She has a word of advice for newcomers to theater.

“I think they should consider what the older generation can offer them if they are just open to it,” she said.

Zussman said people who have recently retired should consider volunteering in theaters because there are always roles, whether on the stage, backstage, in the box office or on the board.

Robinson said the same thing.

“If you’re going to be happy, you have to be okay with a balance,” he said. “With a different balance, so to speak.”


On stage in August: “Be Here Now”

Through Aug. 20

Williamston Theatre

122 S. Putnam St., Williamston

8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

3 p.m. Saturday

2 p.m. Sunday




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