Sondra Ilgenfritz and her stepmother, Pearl, for years enjoyed a special tradition: going to the theater together. Then in 1997 Pearl developed esophageal cancer. “After the radiation therapy, her only nutrition was through a port in her abdomen,” says Ilgenfritz. “She couldn’t go to see a play anymore. She couldn’t really leave the house for long periods. I wished there was a way to bring the theater to people like her.”
Ten years later Ilgenfritz, a retired advertising executive, founded Atlanta Theatre-to-Go. Since 2007 the nonprofit has put on original theater productions in senior centers, churches and synagogues, retirement communities, and assisted living facilities—at no charge to audience members. “I take our residents to Cobb Energy and to the Fox, but not everyone has the physical or financial capabilities to attend,” says Sandi Armstrong, activity director of Delmar Gardens of Gwinnett in Lawrenceville. “For some people, it’s all that they can do to afford to live in a [senior] community.”
Last year Atlanta Theatre-to-Go staged 57 performances, and many venues request repeat visits because the response is so enthusiastic. Each performance is followed by a question-and-answer session. “For hours, even days after the performance, I’ll overhear residents discussing the play, the actors, the themes,” says Armstrong.
Adds Ilgenfritz, “We’ve had residents run up and ask actors to autograph their playbills. I tell my actors, ‘You probably won’t get to Broadway or Hollywood this way, but you’ll never have a more appreciative audience.’”
Theatre-to-Go also offers participatory theater, in which seniors are coached on how to move onstage and project their voices before performing (with script in hand) for friends and family. “It taps into creativity that maybe they didn’t even know they had,” says Armstrong. “They just run with it.” And for the past two years, thanks to grants from the Georgia Council for the Arts, the organization has brought acting classes to low-income residents at HUD senior housing facilities.
One of those residents, Fred Hinton, 73, struggles to pay his bills and manage a number of chronic health issues. After a friend coerced him into attending an Acting 101 class at Decatur Christian Tower, he found that “being in that group of people, with our instructor energizing everybody, allowed me to forget about my health concerns and my financial constraints, if only for one hour. It was something to look forward to.”
This article originally appeared in our September 2016 issue.