A Decade of Theatre For Seniors: A Journey of Aesthetics and Innovation in Later Life

Masthead Image

Credit: The Necessary Stage

Masthead Image

Credit: The Necessary Stage


Theatre For Seniors (TFS) was a programme started by The Necessary Stage (TNS) in 2008. TFS started out as a three year training programme for older persons to learn theatre skills and become practitioners of theatre. It has since reached an estimated 40 seniors, and can boast of at least 10 formal public performances presented by TNS, alongside commissions to perform at local events such as PassionArts and also at eldercare Homes.

This article is based on a study of TFS, which asserts that in later life, aspects of aesthetics and innovation are relevant and all the more important, as past roles in life recede. Through thick description, the study asserts that proactive engagement with theatre does enable growth towards life fulfilment, responsibility to others, flexible and precise thinking in the later years of life. Proactive engagement in the arts therefore provides the Singaporean senior with a path of growth towards collective maturity and health. Continued support for arts programmes for seniors is essential, as artists journey with them in later life, contributing to new definitions of aging and forms of later life fulfilment amidst a rapidly aging Singaporean society.

Theatre For Seniors by The Necessary Stage

Theatre For Seniors (TFS) was launched in April 2008 by The Necessary Stage (TNS). It was a three-year programme which aimed to provide seniors in Singapore with formal training in various aspects of theatre-making, such as acting, directing, playwriting administration and technical work. The programme was led by the Artistic Director of The Necessary Stage, Alvin Tan, supported by resident playwright Haresh Sharma. Theatre facilitators Jean Ng, Julius Foo, Jalyn Han and Judy Ngo were regularly called on over the initial three-year programme to conduct various training sessions for the seniors.

Back in 2008, the only theatre group that catered to seniors was The Glowers Drama Group, led by theatre practitioner Catherine Sng. It was a voluntary group which provided for a mix of social gatherings, theatre training sessions and opportunities for performance. Keen on extending the theatre-making experience through an “immersion programme” (Tan, 2011), Alvin envisioned TFS to be a space, or environment, where “ordinary people” could learn the “macro overarching perspective to art-making”, while honing “micro demands of the discipline” through the mastery of theatre-making skills such as acting, directing and administration. The Necessary Stage thus designed a three-year curriculum for this purpose and announced an open call for about 50 participants to join their programme. They received an overwhelming response, with some applicants being put on hold should anyone decide to drop out of the programme. This indicated that there was indeed public interest in accessing arts training among the senior population in Singapore.

Over three years, TFS produced three annual performances which featured a total of more than 50 senior participants. TNS continued to actively open opportunities for senior members of the public to participate in training workshops, as a means to grow the membership pool of TFS. As TFS gained public recognition, other institutions, such as NTUC, commissioned TNS in 2014 to conduct a training workshop under their ULive Programme for seniors. TNS also encouraged the graduates of their three-year training programme to self-organise and conduct theatre outreach for other seniors, facilitating the formation of the Theatre For Seniors Interest Group (TFSIG) between 2011 – 2013. Members of TFSIG were guided and supported by TNS and other theatre practitioners to conduct training workshops and perform for community groups, in partnership with various organisations and institutions, at various community settings. This development in TFS pointed to the possibility that seniors who had benefited from the theatre programme would be able to share their experience and skills with other seniors, and create a way of extending the theatre process on their terms. It reflects an aspiration on the part of TNS for theatre to belong to these seniors, such that they could initiate and lead a theatre project on their own. TNS also continued to manage TFS with the organization of meetings, performances and workshops. The timeline below provides a snapshot of all the TFS activities conducted between 2008-2020.

A colour-coded timeline of the activities conducted by Theatre for Seniors.

Theatres of Engagement as a Form of Aesthetics and Innovation for Seniors

Lavender (2016) describes ‘theatre of engagement’ as a theatre that is socially engaged, taking on issues that are significant to a group of people. It is a theatre that demands participation, interaction and commitment amongst both spectators and participants, as pertinent issues, determined by the participants, are brought to the fore. Lavender suggests that ‘engagement’ is characteristic of much performance of the 21st century as artists now act as ‘witnesses’ in providing opportunities for communities to ‘speak for themselves’. In unpacking the term ‘engagement’, he highlights that the content of the process and product of a ‘theatre of engagement’ would reflect the following terms: ‘actuality, agency, authenticity, encounter and experiences’. Citing Boswijk et al. (2007), Lavender (2016) asserts that ‘authenticity’ refers to an individual’s journey in discovering the ‘core and essence of things’. This resonates with Japanese philosopher Saito (2017), who considers an aesthetic experience  as a verb that is inexplicably linked to an engagement with the surroundings, contents and actions of an experience. Seel (2008) adds that an aesthetic experience is a necessary mode of consciousness marked by a sense of openness and receptivity to reality, where individual encounters are attended to and appreciated in an unpredictable, in-flux present. Attentiveness, presence and engagement with life encounters in itself define an aesthetic experience. Honing one’s aesthetic sensibility to be present and attentive to life that is unpredictable and uncontrollable could thus be a means of creative engagement and inventiveness in redefining what one finds meaningful, or beautiful, in one’s later life. Theatre as a form of innovation, an added new activity, can enable seniors to widen and deepen their life’s experiences, leading to an individual’s growth and a deepening sense of life’s meaning.

Researching Theatre for Seniors

In a study on the Theatre for Seniors programme, it was found aspects of aesthetics and innovation are indeed relevant in later life, and made all the more important, as past roles in life recede (Low 2022). Using a person-centred pedagogical framework for artists working with communities (Low 2019), aesthetics and innovation are demonstrated via engagement with TFS activities, through opportunities for personal, social, cognitive growth and cultural representation. Data was collected by means of interviews with participants and artist-facilitators of the program, together with studies of past recordings of performances by TFS.

Through thick description, it was found that proactive engagement with theatre does enable growth towards life fulfilment. In terms of personal growth, participants were able to identify, articulate and perform their autobiographical life stories. Non-judgemental improvisation and devising made such personal moments less indulgent or frightening, providing for a discursive distance which brought about deeper reflection on one’s life.

TFS participant, Elsie, found that she learnt more about herself in having to improvise and devise based on her stories. By sharing her stories with the group and audience, she found different and deeper perspectives into her life’s journey, providing opportunities for self-introspection and personal growth. This process of growth and synthesis is also reflected by Suchzeng:

It's a great learning to see yourself detached as a third person, right, because you feel detached and you’re looking at your story performed. You can have that perspective, a very different perspective of being in the story or just observing the story. And that I think is very powerful for development, for people to want to shift their mindset… But it was in the monologue that really helped me integrate and synthesise my journey, my path and my future.

Participants also found that TFS provided for spiritual opportunities of growth, as the theatre processes became introspective tools which helped them understand themselves better. The processing of one’s past paves the way for the most mature stage of the personal growth, marked by self-fulfillment and the integration of the self towards a sense of wholeness or individuation (Low, 2019).

An elderly, male-presenting person standing under a spotlight. Behind him is an old-school family photograph projected on the wall.

A scene about family, from It Takes All Kinds, performed by TFS participants between 1-3 March 2019. Photo Credit: Andre Chong

A female-presenting person crying on a bench. Two others attempt to comfort her while a male-presenting person stares at her with his hands on his hips.

Another scene about family, from It Takes All Kinds, performed by TFS participants between 1-3 March 2019. Photo Credit: Andre Chong

Socially, the participants of TFS came from all walks of life. In the sharing of their stories, and around the pot-luck table, friendships formed. While there were moments of tension or conflict, the common goal of the performance heightened everyone’s sense of collective effort and shared responsibility.

For Padma, a participant of TFS since it started in 2008, the friends she made at TFS over the decade were warm and accepting, enabling her to open up from her past introverted self. It was also the comfort level with the group that made her more courageous in sharing personal stories and discuss ‘taboo’ topics. Freddy, who initially had concerns about being accepted with the group due to his mobility limitations, adds that he felt warmly accepted by the group. For him:

Theatre for Seniors is good… somehow there is a sense of commonness and sense of sharing, and trust and open to each other. So, I hear a lot other stories from my other friends in Theatre for Seniors who share very personal stories and so on, about how they struggle, like for example, Participant X with stomach cancer on how he went through it.

Three elderly persons gesturing broadly with their arms.

TFS participants working together at a workshop by Julius Foo. Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage.

A group of six persons gesturing with their hands. In front of them is a male-presenting person lying face-up on the floor.

TFS participants working together at a workshop by Julius Foo. Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage.

TFS participants also performed for various volunteer welfare organisations, at times working with social issues which were otherwise unfamiliar to them. TFS participant Kathleen, who had never engaged with youth from low-income families, appreciated the opportunity to get to know the youth who were part of Beyond Social Services:

We know the youth better, they told us stories. Some were not… well… well there's a Chinese saying… inequality something like that? Yeah. Actually, we learn from them instead of always learning from the seniors. We learn from the youth, they are very good in acting. They just like pour out all the troubles to us. We can empathize with them. I think sometimes we also get emotional at the workshop. Quite a number of them are Malay.

Cognitively, having to memorise scripts, be aware of blocking positions and cues created opportunities for both flexible and precise thinking. In mastering a new skill, TFS participants became cognitively active and nimble, thereby embodying lifelong learning as part and parcel of later life. TFS facilitator Judy Ngo shared that she was most impressed with the effort put in by the seniors to learn a new skill:

Michael (TFS participant) had to play his old grandfather and then he was having a hard time trying to remember the lines… So for them, it really is a matter of memory, and of repeating and repeating so that you get their body memory down. Then he is like very cute, he recorded his lines. So he basically did an audio recording of him saying those lines, and when he drives, he will listen and listen and listen, so you just repeat the line. Yeah, because sometimes he gives me a lift home. So he explained to me the process. That was fun. And very hardworking, super hardworking.

As a senior’s group, TFS, through their public performances, represented the opinions, concerns and lives of seniors in Singapore. While TFS participants were not intentionally political, the different stories they told of dilemmas and problems faced through devised work presented realities of life faced by seniors. In Encore I, for example, the issue of hoarding is handled humourously by a story about a husband who cannot resist buying cheap mandarin oranges. Encore II presents more somber tones of abandonment, as an elderly woman is made to sit at the void deck until her son returns home from work, while a widower calls up random housing agents so as to have company for himself. In Encore III, a group of senior women find themselves in an old age home and try to make the best out of it. Another senior contemplates living for good on a cruise ship as an alternative to being in a home. In other plays, family dynamics are played out and the perspective or position of the seniors of the family are given light of day. These skits sometimes have a happy resolution. Ofttimes however, there seems to be no solution. In 2014, the play about the elderly woman sitting at the void deck was reconfigured as a piece of forum theatre. Facilitated by TFS participant Thomas Lim, the issue of abandonment was brought out for public discussion, as audience members had to think through solutions to the elderly woman’s predicament.

A large group of persons seated on chairs and on the floor in a room. To their left is a large red curtain.

Public audience at a forum theatre production in the community on senior abandonment. Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage.

Three actors in front of an audience, two speaking and gesturing to each other.

Forum theatre production in the community on senior abandonment. Photo Credit: The Necessary Stage.

In conclusion, proactive engagement in the arts provides the Singaporean senior with a path of growth towards collective maturity and health. The reflections of the TFS participants show that issues of ageing require constant dialogue, flexibility and a willingness to explore later life with seniors, thereby shifting perceptions of rejection and judgement. Continued support for arts programmes for seniors is essential, as artists journey with them in later life, contributing to new definitions of aging and forms of later life fulfilment amidst a rapidly aging Singaporean society.

Currently, two other groups provide opportunities for seniors to engage with theatre. The Glowers Drama Group (Glowers) was started in 2003 by DramaPlus Arts and since 2008, has been run by theatre-television actress Catherine Sng, herself a senior in the theatre scene. It provides for weekly social gatherings for seniors, peppered with various theatre activities and productions over the years. Glowers' members come from a variety of life circumstances. Many are more fluent in dialects and other languages such as Malay and Tamil. For Catherine, her motivation to lead this group comes from the joy and warmth experienced at group gatherings. While theatre is a source of common interests for all members, the social and emotional well-being of the members are of priority to her. Ageless Theatre was formed by ‘graduates’ of the three-year TFS programme. Founded in 2011, it aims to promote active aging through theatre by providing for various production workshops and opportunities to perform for its members. It also conducts community outreach through school performances, for example, where themes with social issues are performed for students to reflect on. Both of these senior theatre groups continue to welcome members to its fold and are ever ready to collaborate with others and perform professionally.


Boswijk, A., Thijssen, T. & Peelen, E. 2007. The Experience Economy – a new perspective. Amsterdam: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Lavender, A. (2016) Performance in the Twenty-First Century: Theatres of Engagement. Routledge, London, New York.
Low, F. (2019) Person-centered Arts Practices with Communities: A Pedagogical Guide. Trafford Publishing, USA.
Low. F (2022) A Decade of Theatre for Seniors: A Journey of Aesthetics and Innovation in Later Life. Trafford Publishing, USA.
Saito, Y. (2017) The ethical dimensions of aesthetic engagement. Espes 6(2), 19-29.
Seel, M. (2008) On the scope of the aesthetic experience, in Aesthetic Experience, Shusterman R. & Tomlin A. (eds), Routledge, New York, USA.