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The New York Theatre Workshop’s flagship program provides a model for bringing younger and older people together for conversation, friendship and art.

By Duncan Magidson | Nov 8, 2022

Katelyn Seyle, 19, and Diane J. Harris, 69, embracing

Photo credit: Adam Fontana

Separated in age by 50 years, Katelyn Seyle, 19, and Diane J. Harris, 69 (both pictured above), spent hours interviewing each other as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s intergenerational program, Mind the Gap. After a few months, each wrote a short play inspired by the conversations, then professional actors brought the scripts to life in staged readings.

The experience, both say, was transformational. The plays, which you can watch below, are sensational.

In October 2022, CoGenerate hosted a webinar that included their two plays as performed by four actors, plus a conversation with the two playwrights and representatives of the New York Theatre Workshop. I had the privilege of moderating.

Below is an excerpt from my Q+A with two New York Theatre Workshop leaders — Director of Education Alexander Santiago-Jirau and Lead Teaching Artist Andrew Garrett.

Can you just tell me a little bit about what Mind the Gap is and how the program got started?

Alex: Mind the Gap is our flagship education program at the New York Theatre Workshop. We started the program in 2009 out of a desire to bring our audiences in the theater, who tend to be older, and the audiences that we were cultivating in New York City public schools, obviously younger, together in a program that was truly cogenerational.

There are some intergenerational programs that place the elder in the position of wise mentor to young people, and vice versa. This is not that kind of program. At Mind the Gap, older adults and younger folks can come together to have an artistic experience, learning about each other in true dialogue about the things that affect them and finding common ground through dialogue and through theater.

We believe that theater is the most humanistic of art forms, that storytelling is a human quality that needs to be nurtured and talking to each other is the way we get to solve problems together.

How does the program work?

Andrew: In the playwriting model, a group of about 10 to 12 folks, half of whom are teenagers and half of whom are elders, meet together once or twice a week for a total of around 28 program hours together.

For the first half of the program, we do theater exercises, ensemble or community building games, and playwriting fundamentals activities in case someone has zero theatrical experience, which is totally okay and encouraged. We also give the participants excerpts from published plays to help accent or illustrate what we’re learning in that class on that day.

At the core of what we do in Mind the Gap are the interviews. Every teenager and every elder gets to meet everyone of the opposite generation one-on-one in a round robin style interview series. Those interviews vary in length, but they all are centralized around questions that anybody of any age could answer.

Halfway through the program, all teens and all elders will have met each other one-on-one. And then we partner people with a more permanent or long-term partner (either by request or by design from the facilitators) and they spend more time in longer interviews with that permanent partner. They eventually write a 10-minute play inspired by that person.

We use the word inspired really intentionally — the participants use an essence of their partner to inspire a play, but they also bring themselves to the work and bring in their own artistic ideas.

At the end of the program, each participant has their own 10-minute play read by professional actors.

We also have a devising (performance) version of the workshop, where the teens and elders come together to work collaboratively and perform their work on stage together.

How do you build the program to make sure you’re bridging generational divides?

Andrew: We have really clear cultural norms that we set from the beginning of the process — we also work with the participants to develop our own norms for each group. When we pair people for interviews, we make sure to ask questions that everybody can answer, regardless of experience or age. And I think the biggest thing we do is lead, facilitate and act from a place of acceptance, love and empathy every day. Some people come in with a huge amount of experience. Some people have never written a play. Some people interact with folks of the opposite generation every day, and some do not. But we always move through the space as a community.

What are some ways people can get involved in and support this work?

Alex: We will have our final readings for our current Mind the Gap program at the Brooklyn Main Library on Monday, December 19, 4-6:30pm ET. So look at our website, look at our social media and if you are interested in joining, we’ll post the link to RSVP once it’s available.

But if you’re not in Brooklyn, you can always go to New York Theatre Workshop’s website and donate to make this program possible free of charge for all the participants and also to allow us to bring this program to other places.

If you’re interested in getting involved, please get in touch directly. My email is on the website on the Mind the Gap page. Please also tell your friends about the program, especially when applications are open — and recommend it to anyone in your life that is interested in engaging in cogenerational conversation and playwriting. No experience required!

We’re also thinking about ways that we can continue to expand partnerships, not only in New York City, but around the country and the world. We’re developing a curriculum that can be scaled and shared with folks. We’re also sending teaching artists to other communities, both in and outside of New York.

We are really willing to do this work and share the knowledge that we have developed over our decade plus of doing intergenerational work. So, please reach out to us — let’s open up a dialogue. We might not end up in a partnership right away, but we’ll keep building toward it until we make it happen.