The latest way for seniors to stay sharp: Improv

Sheila Weinstein, Marilyn Fogel and Dolores Davis with facilitator Larry Kaufman doing Gripes on Doctors. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

It definitely wasn't something Jeanne Buerkel would have tried in the corporate world, even having reached an age when you can say almost anything and get away with it.

"Are you chewing gum?" Buerkel, 89, asked the woman about to exit the SEPTA bus with her. She waited a split second for the shocked stare, and then: "Me, too!"

The woman exploded in laughter.

For Buerkel, a retired business developer for architects, it had nothing to do with chewing gum and everything to do with an improv routine she wanted to try out in the real world.

"Me, Too" is an improv standard, and attendance at classes shows that so, too, are seniors. As older people discover that improvisation can help them stay sharp, local demand is growing for the groups that offer socialization, as well as mental - and sometimes physical - exercise.

There are improv classes at Temple University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), and Philly Improv Theater is planning to add a new class just for seniors. At ComedySportz Philadelphia, 70-somethings take classes with millennials.

At OLLI, where Buerkel attends, instructor Jean Haskell, a retired organizational-development consultant, is 83.

"It's recess for adults," said Kristin Finger, education director at ComedySportz Philadelphia. "In improv, you can be 70 years old and act like a 7-year-old on the swing set. We all need that."

Michael C. Patterson, a principal of Mindramp Consulting, which designs cognitive-wellness strategies, hasn't seen scientific studies on improv, but he believes the exercise includes elements that have been proven beneficial.

Patterson, who is based in Los Angeles, cites work by Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins University indicating that musicians use different parts of the brain when reading from a score and when improvising.

"It is important to 'cross-train' the brain," Patterson, who once ran the AARP's brain health program, wrote in an e-mail, "engaging a broad range of cognitive functions.

"When we simply do the same type of activity we have always done, we reinforce existing habits and their existing neural correlates. We need to switch things around and try novel activities in order to stimulate parts of the brain that don't usually get stimulated."

In Chicago, a husband (actor) and wife (psychologist) are working with a University of Illinois neuroscientist to see whether theater improvisation can cause structural changes in the brain detectable through MRIs.

Dolores Davis, 72, an executive coach and organizational development consultant, attends the Open Circle improv group in West Philadelphia and says she doesn't need science to prove its benefits.

"It keeps me in a learning mode," she said, "and it helps me approach things with an open mind."

As actress Sue Zipin gets older, she finds it harder to memorize parts, but finds that improv "makes you think on your feet. It keeps you sharper," said the 77-year-old, who attends Open Circle, too. "You're not in a vacuum with your thoughts."

Walnut Street Theatre's education director, Tom Quinn, said senior students have ranged from retired actresses wanting to "come back to their first passion" to a 70ish widower just looking for something to get himself out of the house.

"That social outlet was enormously important to him," Quinn said. "It took great courage for him."

And when classes end, he said, "it's great to see them walking out and making plans to do something else."

Although many seniors attend intergenerational classes, Philly Improv has found that some prefer to be with people closer to their own age. "A lot of comedy, especially improv, is about references to other cultures, slang, etc.," said executive director Greg Maughan, "and for older students, that can sometimes make their jokes fall flat because young students don't get the reference" and vice versa.

For the seniors who live in retirement communities, improv plays a different role, said Robb Hutter, who heads Philly Senior Stage. Hutter's group generally works with dramatic set pieces, but incorporates elements of improv.

"There's more peer pressure in a retirement community," he said. "They're very polite with each other. That's why drama is so beneficial to them. They can let their hair down."

At the Community Education Center in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia, Open Circle was playing "gripes" one Thursday evening session.

Group leader Larry Kaufman, 55, sat on the floor orchestrating the skit with Zipin; Dick Brown, 79, a retired actor and educator who co-teaches the Temple class; and Alan Fogel, 70, a former city deputy managing director for prisons.

The subject was the city Parking Authority, and participants spewed out a monologue of complaints - overzealous enforcement, poor signage - as Kaufman pointed to one or the other like a symphony conductor.

Then the subject changed to doctors, with Kaufman directing Sheila Weinstein, 73, a travel agent; Marilyn Fogel, 68, a retired teacher and Alan's wife; and Dolores Davis.

Kaufman, who owns a driving school as his day job, described Open Circle as "a tight-knit group of people who love improv." Some have been working together for years, but others simply drop in after reading the notices he posts on Craigslist.

"We love the challenge of speaking extemporaneously, dealing with the unknown, being in the moment, being challenged," Kaufman said. "It's all life lessons, learning to listen and respond."

That necessary quick thinking comes from one of the cardinal rules of improv: accepting the offer. "With another improviser, you accept whatever they throw at you and go with it," Patterson said.

This is often referred to as using "yes, and" rather than "yes, but."

Finger, the ComedySportz education director, said this has proved particularly valuable for improv students still in the business world, where listening and communication skills are extremely valuable.

Davis, who describes herself as "more of an introvert," said she has incorporated some improv elements into her group presentations.

"It helps me be spontaneous."