NET/TEN Shareback: TAPIT/new works, St. Mary's Care Center, & Verona School District - Sample Lesson Plans

2017-18 Exchange Grant Recipients

TAPIT/new works (Madison, WI) engaged in a series of theater and movement workshops with St. Mary’s Care Center (Madison, WI) and Verona School District’s 18-21 Year Old Transition Program (Madison, WI) in order to create a multimedia theater work titled Our Stories, Our Process. This process refined and expanded TAPIT/new works’ model for community-based artmaking with social services partners. The work concluded with a performance featuring an inter-generational cast of participants, including skilled nursing facility residents and youth with disabilities.


We think ensemble theater artists have a lot to bring to the process of creative aging. We hope the information we have provided will be helpful to others in the field who may be curious about working in this area.

Sample Lesson Plans

This project represents the 5th year of our multi-faceted collaboration with St. Mary’s Care Center and VSDTP. It all began when Carmela Mulroe, the very dynamic Activities Director at St. Mary’s contacted us because she had heard about a play we had done about caregivers, and she wondered if we might be interested in working with her residents to do a performance.

We said yes because, as it happens Donna Peckett and I, TAPIT/new works’ producing artistic directors, have worked with older adults before, in straightforward performance situations and more participatory workshops and classes. Also, as a company, TAPIT/new works is very involved with using community input to help shape development of a new play.

What we do
This is a quick summary of how our process works:

  • Carmela, the St. Mary’s Activities Director, selects a theme for each year’s project. This year the theme was “Rise Up.” It was inspired by Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”
  • Carmela and Krista (Special Education case manager for VSDTP) recruit participants from St. Mary’s Care Center and VSDTP.
  • Danielle and Donna, TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater artists, conduct weekly theater and movement-based workshops at St. Mary’s with participants. VSDTP students are bused in for workshops and rehearsals. This year twelve workshops ran from November 2018 – February 2019. This is the portion of our project covered by the NET/TEN grant.
  • Danielle assembles a script based on participants’ comments, insights, and responses to workshop activities and discussions. This year two original songs were developed, using participants’ words and original music TAPIT/new works had commissioned for other projects.
  • Donna and Danielle work with project participants to rehearse their play, adding production elements as appropriate. This year some simple hand-held props were incorporated.
  • Carmela schedules performances for the group. She coordinates with colleagues at St. Mary’s to arrange performances at the facility and invite outside groups, friends, and family to attend. She works with other senior centers, public libraries, and service organizations to schedule performances off-site.
  • Participants perform their play as scheduled, and sometimes, when we’re “on the road,” host sites have a reception for the performers. We usually conclude with our own reception at St. Mary’s, which is very popular.

In the workshop sessions, we focus on activities designed to spark participants’ creativity and solicit their input for their script. These include:

  • Sensory stimulating activities
  • Mad Libs” based on our theme
  • Questions based on our theme, such as  “What does ‘rising up’ mean to you?” and “What helps you rise up?”
  • Modified group writing exercises exploring such themes as recipes and game shows

Assembling a script based on the material we have gathered always presents a challenge because, while this is not a play with a traditional plot, arc, or characters, it is our goal to develop a theater piece that does take audiences from here to there. We look for ways to elucidate the theme in the beginning and strive to end the piece on a note of affirmation and hope. In between, this year we made use of formats with which everyone is pretty familiar, such as recipes, grocery stores, and game shows. Using these broadly understood cultural structures provided us with scaffolding to organize the input we received from participants.

We have incorporated projections into the performance aspect of this show, to introduce a visual element and to make it possible for the audience to sing along with the songs in the show. Because our final performances will not be part of the time period covered by the NET grant, we are experimenting with projecting the entire script to let the field (other ensemble groups) know the full scope of our work. Using video projection relieves participants from holding and manipulating scripts, which can be difficult. We have not found that memorization and improvisation to be effective options for performance, and people seem to like the idea of working with a script.

What works well
We have found the most effective elements of this work to be building connections and the inter-generational rapport, which develops between all involved.

The simple truth is that paying attention to people is a great way to build connections. This really matters for older adults and youth with disabilities, because too often people try to avoid even looking at them. Thus they become invisible. We come in, lead warm-up exercises with them, ask them questions, write down their answers, and assemble their responses in a form even more people will come and pay attention to.

As with the development of any theater project, there will be times when things don’t work, times when things are frustrating, and flat-out hysterically funny moments that no one else will ever see, yet they bring the group together in a glorious way. It is life-giving to recognize and embrace them all.

It’s important to put the time in when working with such marginalized populations, and it’s absolutely vital to follow through.

When it comes down to it, based on our more than 25 years of residency experiences with youth from disadvantaged backgrounds, traditional schools, and older adults, we have found that residencies work better with a bit of love. The more you can see and appreciate people for who they are and where they are, the more effectively you can craft situations in which they can shine. At the same time, the more fully present you can be with project participants, the more they can trust you and the more likely they are to take chances, surpass their own expectations, and surprise you and everybody else.

What’s tough
This is also obvious, but older adults and youth with disabilities are not in good health and that means you cannot always count on everyone attending the weekly sessions. Oddly enough, this is less problematic in performance, when staff can simply take their parts, than it is during project development. Nonetheless, frequent absences are just something you need to prepare for and find creative ways to work around.

Their many physical and mental challenges mean that project participants may not respond or behave as one might expect in a rehearsal or project development situation. Without being confrontational or contradicting, we try to guide people back on track, and keep them on the topic when needed. What might be surprising is how focused everybody gets once we are actually running the show in rehearsal. It really is a lot like working with any other group of performers.

What our care-giving partners tell us
As you’ll see from the comments Carmela and Krista made, open, accessible, and engaged partners working in senior care and special education are key. While they’re not everywhere, they do exist, and there will probably be more of them in the future, if only because senior care facilities must find ways to adapt to and meet the needs of the new generation of older adults.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, Carmela Mulroe said, “Start from where you are.” That’s one of the principal feelings Carmela has taken away from her forays into bringing artists into skilled care nursing facilities.

Carmela said she contacted us because, “I was looking for a partner. I always wanted to do plays to create change.”

Working with TAPIT/new works artist has been very positive for Carmela, her residents, and her colleagues. “It made me realize I could get buy in,” she said. She enjoyed how we were able to get thoughts and ideas from residents. She noticed that as participants started answering the questions TAPIT/new works artists posed, all present could see they had a lot going on.

Older people, and people with significant physical and mental challenges who may never have had much prior exposure to the arts and the creative process can still take pleasure in learning new things. “We’re game,” she said. “It gets us more exposure.”

Carmela noted that working with TAPIT/new works was rewarding for all her residents because it gave them a chance to feel listened to, for a change, and discover things about themselves they hadn’t known before.

“There are people here who were born to perform and they never knew it was in there,” she said. “This is allowing them to be somebody.”

Both Carmela and Krista were somewhat mystified by the process of developing a performance the first time we did it. They said they didn’t see how our discussions and theater games and sensory exercises would come to be a play, but they were happy to go along and see where it led. When it did turn into a performance piece, they were delighted by the transformation and the impact the process had on the people they work with. “You have to accept that this doesn’t always make sense,” they said.

As professionals working with people with significant challenges Carmela and Krista have some insights that would benefit any artist interested in working with these populations. They said it’s good to come in with an idea, but you can’t come in with a plan, if for no other reason than any artist will always be working at the mercy of the schedules the institutions and organizations must follow.

“You can’t say, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ You always have to have a plan B.”

“Go at it slowly, get to know people,” Krista said, noting that working with people with dementia or significant physical disabilities requires having two distinct and contradictory attitudes about the people you’re working with. On the one hand, at the core of every person is our essential, shared humanity. On the other hand, “They’re not like other people,” Krista said, “and they’re going to know if someone has an aversion to them.”

Working in settings where everyone has at least one diagnosis of some sort and the majority of people use wheelchairs helped us see the safety such places provide; safety not only in the sense of people looking after them, but safety in the sense of being accepted. They are not looked at askance, or treated as freaks, because they are normal here. Anyone working with such populations needs to be ready to meet people where they are, directly and respectfully.

“I always think, if this were my mother or father or child, how would I want them to be treated?” Krista said. “How would I want their lives to be enriched?”

Why we think this work is important and worthwhile
Doing this work really makes you feel like you are making a difference in people’s lives, and indeed all reports indicate that we are, but that’s not what keeps drawing us back. People living in skilled care nursing facilities and youth with disabilities have been through the mill, and they keep going through the mill, day after day. But they do keep on going, and we learn so much from them. Getting to know project participants and working with them make us feel we are drawing closer to an understanding of the universal dignity of human beings. This is a quality we feel should be honored wherever it is found. Through our combination of workshops and performances, we strive to celebrate the essential and indomitable spirit of our project participants.

Download Sample Lesson Plans as a PDF below:



Link to a short video combining documentary footage of TAPIT/new works artists in a workshop with project participants with interviews with our project partners

The National Center for Creative Aging is a good place to start exploring this field


Donna Peckett & Danielle Dresden
TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater
1957 Winnebago Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53704

Posted by: 
Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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