Meet Student Artist In Residence: Andrew Gray
September 5, 2019
Andew heard about the TimeSlips Student Artists In Residence (SAIR) program by accident. Back in February 2018, Robin Mello interviewed him via phone for his entrance into the Bachelor of Arts in Theater Practices at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), where he now majors in Directing and Playwriting. At the end of a long conversation, Robin mentioned an artist residency where students live in an elder care community and conduct workshops in exchange for free room and board.
Even though he had never worked with elders before, he thought he would try a new experience. He was selected to be placed at Luther Manor and quickly found out it was much different from the nursing home he had envisioned.
To his surprise, Andrew’s one bedroom apartment was way bigger than his friends’ dorm rooms, and he had a balcony. He paid nothing in rent, and even received $11 per day in credit to eat at the restaurant at the Manor (yes, there is a restaurant, two in fact, AND a deli, art room, exercise room, as well as activities like dart ball, movies, car shows, and Wii bowling tournaments!). “Luther Manor is full of life and activity! I was blown away - I had never seen anything like it before. It cemented my idea that older folks want to continue to live full lives and enjoy and experience as much as everyone else,” said Andrew. These activities provided Andrew with the perfect opportunity to meet and get to know the residents, which also began to inform plans for the creative workshops he would facilitate.
Andrew has come a long way since his first session, which was more of a lecture. He says, “I would actually never do that again! It was a learning experience that caused me to shift. Community based arts is about creating arts with, for, and by the community you’re in. The method I’m now focusing on, after better understanding that definition, is not doing things at the residents but being creative with them.”
One example of a workshop that Andrew created with the residents is called “The Final Bow.” Andrew led residents in creating an emotional will or legacy letter, which he describes as, “a letter written to a loved one to make sure you communicate what you want to say to them, in case anything happens and you are unable to say it.” This workshop was very personal and emotional, as residents wrote words of love to those they care about. Each resident left that day with a letter to a loved one, and with instructions on how to have it delivered.
Over the course of his year-long residency, Andrew and the residents also wrote and produced an entire play! One resident in particular, Rusty, co-produced “Clueless: The Revenge” with Andrew. “We started talking about the idea in October, created an outline of the story in November, wrote the script in January, and edited in February. Then, we did the casting and first readings in March, and by May we were putting on an original play! When it was over, everyone was coming up to us telling us they really enjoyed it! I really enjoyed it, the residents that were involved really enjoyed it - and that’s what we’re here for.”
The biggest thing he has learned, Andrew says, is that “we don’t always have to create fine art that goes in a museum or is performed on a big stage with a huge audience. When someone says ‘I can’t create art because I’m not an artist’, that is false. Anyone can create and make.” Andrew now finds that the process of creating art provides an emotional relief and intellectual stimulation, and an expression of ourselves that we couldn’t do otherwise. “Even if you make something you don’t like, the process is what benefited you!” he says.
In celebration of their creativity, the residents of Luther Manor and Andrew also participated in Flourish Fest, an event hosted by UWM that brought together all 5 of the UWM SAIRs from 4 different elder care communities from the 2018-19 academic year. It is a chance for each SAIR to showcase the work they have done with residents, to celebrate and reflect with their peers, and to demonstrate to the larger community the incredible impact of the SAIR program.
Andrew led a workshop at the Fest that practices skills of empathy and relationship building by having elder care residents and non-residents sit across the table from one another. They play theater games such as mirroring each other, sharing their dreams, and asking for/giving advice. This was in an effort to, as Andrew described it, “link their body, mind, and soul.”
By the end of his residency, Andrew had conducted around forty creative workshops with residents! It is an everyday occurance to have an elder tell him that he is like a grandchild to them. “You can see it in someone’s face when they are really resonating with what they are hearing and doing, and when they are actively engaged.” He has thoroughly enjoyed his role at Luther Manor. “Imagine living with 200 grandmas and grandpas,” he says, “getting to make art with them all day, AND getting paid for it in room and board. Outstanding!”
There is a lot of love here. So much so, that Andrew has been invited back for a second year of residency. After a summer working in a theater, he is excited to get back to Luther Manor and continue to put his learning into practice in this meaningful way. Since he’s already used “The Final Bow” as the name of one of his workshops, he is considering naming his first workshop back “Encore” or “Back by Popular Demand!” for part two of his residency.
Andrew sees SAIR as a chance to bridge divides: “The SAIR program opens everyone's eyes, especially young people who may never see any older people other than their grandparents. It allows us to see older adults, and everyone in fact, as more than just their label.”