61: A New Stage in Life

61: A New Stage in Life

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Possible

A New Stage in Life

Don’t simply retire from something; have something to retire to.

~Harry Emerson Fosdick

I was sixty and newly retired from my thirty-seven-year career as a probation officer for Los Angeles County. I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. A friend told me about classes for seniors at a community program.

The following week, I entered the admissions office, found a stack of class schedules, and started flipping pages. I noticed a Scene Study class under the Theater Arts section. I just assumed that the students sat in their seats and went around the room with each one reading a line or two from a play before discussing and analyzing it. I’d always enjoyed plays and figured I could handle that, so I enrolled.

On the first day, I walked into a stereotypical classroom. Everyone else there seemed to know each other; they had obviously been taking the class for a while. I was the new kid on the block and felt intimidated. Soon after I found a seat, a man approached me.

“You want to read this with me?” he asked, holding out a few sheets of paper.

“Okay,” I answered, not understanding what he meant.

He walked up to the front of the room and turned to see if I was following him.

“Come on,” he said with a spark of irritation in his voice since I hadn’t moved from my chair.

Oh my God! We were supposed to read standing in front of everybody?

I felt like running out, but how could I? During my career, I had worked with murderers, robbers, rapists and the like, the most feared members of society. Nevertheless, I had never conquered the agonizing stage fright that I had first felt when I had to give a book report in front of my class in grammar school.

Slowly, dragging it out as long as I could, I made my way up to the front of the class to join the man who had handed me the script. It was a scene from Death of a Salesman, an exceptionally complex play. I had never acted in my life or had any aspirations to do so.

I began to read my lines, not sure if any words would come out. After managing a few sentences in a croaking voice, a strange thing happened to me. I became so engrossed in the role that I completely forgot a roomful of strangers was watching me. When we were finished, everyone dutifully clapped. I looked up and realized where I was and that I was not Willy Loman’s wife from the play. What a high. I had done it! I was hooked.

A few weeks later my mother died, and my usually outgoing, charismatic father was depressed and withdrawn.

“Come with me to my acting class, Daddy,” I blurted out without even thinking about it. “You can just sit in the back of the room and you don’t have to do anything.”

It took some convincing, but I finally wore him down. We entered the classroom a few days later and sat in the last row. About midway through the class, the teacher called on my father to come up front and participate in an improv exercise with another student. I was concerned that he wouldn’t want to do it, but he stood up and walked jauntily toward the front. While reading, he really seemed to be enjoying himself.

On the way home, Dad wanted to know what time I was picking him up the next week for our class. That began a magical journey for the next three years. We bonded more during those years than we had in the previous sixty.

I soon found that there wasn’t any professional material available for an eighty-five-year-old man. I thought of trying to write something, but the only real writing I had ever done was as a probation officer composing reports for judges to assist them in sentencing criminal defendants. I had never done any creative writing. Nevertheless, I had to try.

I wrote humorous dad and daughter scenes where Dad was an irascible old man and Daughter was always tearing her hair out over his antics — not always so far from the truth. We performed our scenes in the acting class showcases twice a year before live audiences. We were the only senior father and daughter team ever in that class, and the audiences adored us.

I was starting to gain more confidence in myself, and my stage fright was slowly dissipating. I networked with other class members and learned that some were auditioning for real acting jobs. I wanted some of that; my thirst for acting was conquering the shy part of my nature.

I arrived at my first audition with much anxiety — another stage fright moment. However, my stronger side was determined and kept me from running out. I survived the experience, and after a few more awkward tries, I got better. I had professional headshots taken. I created a résumé, which was pretty sparse as I had only acted in class.

Soon, I booked my first paid acting job. It was a commercial, and I earned four hundred dollars. I couldn’t believe it! Didn’t they know I would have done it for free?

Eventually, I got an agent, went on even more auditions, and booked more jobs. I slowly started to feel like a real actress as my résumé began filling up. Of course, I shared it all with Dad, who was living in a nursing home by then. He was experiencing it vicariously through me. We loved to talk about acting whenever we could.

I have now appeared in numerous roles in commercials, television, film, theater, and print. I often work at UCLA Medical School portraying patients for student training. I have played such diverse roles as a granny rapper, a sexy senior, and a trash-talking gangster granny with a machine gun.

The story of my transition from retired probation officer to senior actress has been written about in Time magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and in a book by Marlo Thomas that profiles women who have reinvented themselves.

I wrote a memoir about my experience, which was published in 2013, entitled Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class. I’m blogging now with the goal of helping baby boomers and seniors find joy, excitement, and satisfaction in their retirement. I also give public lectures to inspire them to find a passion as a motivation to change their lives just as I did.

~Lee Gale Gruen

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