Bringing Theater and Creative Workshops to Senior Living

Bringing Theater Workshops to Senior Living

Jerry Perna brings theater to residents. Jerry Perna

If all the world’s a stage, shouldn’t every one of every age engage in theater? Of course and that’s the idea behind Jerry Perna’s Playing for Life!

“The name of my company has several meanings. Sometimes if you play long enough maybe your life will be longer and why not play for as long as you’re able?,” Perna said.

Perna, 53 of Philadelphia, Pa, began his company in February, 2014, after having provided occasional programs for Senior Community Services of Delaware County, in the early 2000’s.

  “It’s simply about using the creative abilities given to us. ‘Round about the age of ten, or twelve, society tells us to ‘get serious!’, ‘don’t do that!’. And, I think it’s even more so with people over 65…they come from a time where creativity was simply not encouraged and even looked upon with suspicion. No one has told them since they were about 12 that you can use your imagination. It’s OK!” Perna said.

His programs run from one hour to 90 minutes in length, on a sliding price scale of $75 to $150 depending on the distance he travels to the community, whether it is a simple program utilizing pre-written scripts, or, a more comprehensive ‘Devised Workshop’, where residents write/create and perform an original production. Working with a maximum of 10 residents at a session, the programs also include script reading, writing exercises, oral storytelling and theater games that Perna uses in his workshops with professional actors.

He has seen a marked improvement in the cognitive abilities of some residents involved in the sessions.

“I’m not a therapist and I make no claims to that effect, but I’ve seen first hand improvements in cognition and focus, as well as a certain brightening of mood” he said. “And it’s interactive. It’s not simply sitting and watching someone entertain, or plopping the residents in front of a television.

It compels you to be involved and active with others.”

A graduate of the American Conservatory Theater, in California, his professional acting life, dates back to the late 1970’s. Perna has appeared in over 75 professional theater productions, all over America, as well as traveling to Canada, Poland and the Czech Republic on productions, including one commemorating the Holocaust, at the Auschwitz concentration camp. His experience also includes national commercials, voice overs, directing plays with all types of groups, including the disabilities’ population and young people on the Autism Spectrum.

As a writer, his play with music, THE MUSIC YOU REMEMBER, was published, last year, after its’ premiere production, in Philadelphia. He has worked in award-winning films and theater, with Oscar, Tony and Emmy winners and nominees, including Bradley Cooper, Debbie Allen, Richard Thomas, of The Waltons TV series and show business legend Mickey Rooney. Of Mr. Rooney, he says: “It was amazing to be in the same scene with him. In his mid-80’s, when I worked with him, he had not lost one bit of his timing. And, I have to say, my mother, who is now 90 years old-and still lives on her own!- was mighty impressed that I was working with that legend!” 

Irene O’Connor, activity director at Holy Family Home in Philadelphia, praised his work with her residents. "We have a gentleman with dementia. He is quiet and keeps to himself, but when it's theater time he is always vibrant, excited and ready to take the lead. The experience puts him in a totally different place."

Perna’s creativity workshops-he prefers this description, as the term ‘acting classes’ tends to put off some people, who can be intimidated. “It’s not one size fits all thing. I have to know your population-independent living, long term care, etc.– as well as their cognitive abilities and individual interests.

It’s only then, that I’m able to tailor the program for that group. The benefits are much greater when my program is presented weekly to a group of no more than 10 participants,” Perna said.

The best part, he said, is that, “I love my work. The more I do it, the more I love it and the more I learn! I just want the same for the residents I serve!”

For further information Jerry Perna can be contacted at: