Puttin’ on the Ritz and Improving the Wellbeing of Older Adults through Virtual Musical Theater | Queen’s newspaper

More than half of Canadians between the ages of 64 and 74 have increased their participation in online activities during the pandemic.

Digital programs and virtual interactions, initially seen as stopgap measures in the first waves of the pandemic, can now be an important part of supporting the health and well-being of many people – including the well-being of older adults.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, musical group activities moved online, sparking a wave of virtual choral experimentation and virtual orchestra offerings.

This and other online communities were not limited to students. A Statistics Canada survey found that more than half of Canadians between the ages of 64 and 74 increased their participation in online activities during the pandemic, connecting with family and friends via video conferencing or accessing entertainment online .

Virtual opportunities in the performing arts offer older adults the potential to nurture skills and creativity and improve well-being.

social connection

Digitization serves many purposes, the most important of which may be social connection.

Because connecting with others is still important for older adults, this may be accomplished through or in addition to virtual leisure or entertainment opportunities.

Our research has found that virtual musical theater – musical theater online – offers a more accessible and less exclusive way to engage in this art form, with many benefits for participants.

Performing Arts on the Internet

The performing arts allow performers and audiences to feel, create in community, express themselves and communicate or play through song, movement or storytelling.

Benefits associated with participating in the arts include improved mood and well-being, and a sense of belonging.

Research has also documented associations between seniors’ participation in the arts and improved mobility and vocal health.

Before the onset of the pandemic, we had begun running a program, Rise, Shine, Sing!, that created opportunities for local citizens who are normally excluded from creating musical theater due to age, ability and access. The program was primarily attended by older adults, some of whom suffered from Parkinson’s disease or other chronic conditions.

We held three weekly face-to-face sessions from late February 2020 to mid-March, and then moved the program online (via Zoom) for 12 sessions from April to June 2020. The program continues to be offered with many participants stating that they prefer to continue virtually.

Somewhat to our surprise, when the program went live, the fact that participants could only hear the presenter and themselves sing was not a barrier to participation. Participants enjoyed singing, dancing, and creating characters with costumes and props based on cues and feedback from presenters.

Paradigm shift for music theater

Virtual musical theater represents a major paradigm shift for the genre. When people think of musical theater, they most often think of living bodies moving in perfect synchrony with choreographed movements and voices singing in perfect harmony while the performers are physically present together are.

Researchers have studied how group singing and movement promote togetherness, community, and social bonding.

Musical theater has made strides throughout the 21st century to become more inclusive. For example, the Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theater creates works of musical theater that can be experienced and performed by members of the deaf and hearing communities.

A multitude of new works, stagings and casting practices illuminate and support the experiences of marginalized groups, for example by diversifying and queering the field.

Such works offer resistance and new stories to an industry traditionally ableistic, white, and age-focused.

But despite a healthy community musical theater scene in North America, most opportunities still turn many people away due to issues related to social anxiety, experiences, mobility, family life, and/or finances.

Musical theater meets universal design

We drew on the intersection of musical theater performance and universal learning design to develop a model where success can vary from person to person.

In terms of movement, the participants could synchronize with the facilitator and/or other members of the group. They were equally welcome and encouraged to adapt or adapt their movements to suit their own needs and interests.

We embraced dancing from both a seated and standing position to explore different levels and accommodate different mobility abilities. Participants controlled how much they shared by choosing how visible they wanted to be on camera.

Classics and newer numbers

We used musical classics or standards sing in the rainthe sound of music, Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat — as well as newer numbers of Evil and other popular songs.

We’ve also helped create our own songs, combining our shared memories or inspirations through imagery, lyrics and movement to explore themes of joy and resilience in difficult times.

While the program was conducted virtually, the leaders would come to all attendees or send prop boxes to all attendees prior to the sessions. These were filled with costumes, including small scarves and ribbons, that could be used in choreography.

Promise of virtual music theater

Virtual musical theater has shown incredible promise, even in the short time we’ve explored it. Digital connections reconstruct being together at the same time and in the same space. This adds new dimensions to making music in a group.

First, goals and expectations of uniformity are replaced by goals of individual empowerment and creative exploration.

Second, participants remain committed to the community and group efforts, but are also free to adapt and adapt the way they engage with the material and each other. When group members invite friends or family in other cities to participate virtually, as some in our group have done, the virtual community expands in meaningful ways as well.

Finally, participants can also adjust their personal comfort level by sharing as much or little of themselves with the group without feeling like they are letting the group down.

Our hybrid future

The pandemic has catalyzed the need for virtual interaction. While we know Zoom fatigue is rampant, virtual opportunities for participation and the creation of musical theater offer a new paradigm of artistic experience.

These opportunities also show promise for providing performers with some of the same benefits as in-person musical theater experiences.

In some cases, they also facilitate new approaches to music in the community, allowing participants to engage with the art form and with each other in ways that support personal agency and independence while maintaining social connection and interactivity. Who could ask for more?The conversation


Julia Brook, Director and Associate Professor, DAN School of Drama and Music, Queen’s University and Colleen Renihan, Associate Professor and Queen’s National Scholar of Musical Theater and Opera, Queen’s University

This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation is looking for new academic contributors. Researchers interested in writing articles should contact Melinda Knox, Director, Thought Leadership and Strategic Initiatives, at knoxm@queensu.ca.

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