Above: Actors (left to right): Carol Thompson, Bernadine Cantrell, Yolanda Adams, Steve Miller and Deborah Childs

Photos by Isadora Pennington

Theatre-To-Go founder Sondra Ilgenfritz says the idea for her traveling theater company took hold about 15 years ago, when her aging stepmother could no longer attend theatrical productions, something the two had enjoyed for years.

A long illness and her theater-loving stepmother’s need to remain attached to medial apparatus kept her at home. That’s when Ilgenfritz thought about “bringing theater to aging adults” who were no longer mobile, but still took pleasure in the arts.

“Today, we are a theater on wheels and [with] no walls,” Ilgenfritz said.

Sondra Ilgenfritz (seated) and David Rucker III

The Atlanta-based theater group now mounts 40 to 60 shows a year. Since it started, the company has performed in about 90 different venues, including senior centers, assisted living centers, retirement communities, churches and synagogues, Ilgenfritz said.

“Some organizations bring every one of our plays to their facilities every year,” she said. “That’s how we know we have a loyal following.”

Just because their audiences are older doesn’t mean you can give them anything, says Ilgenfritz. All of the actors audition for their roles, and a reading committee reads all the scripts. “We want to give them the highest quality possible.” Theatre-To-Go pays their actors, directors and playwrights. “We pride ourselves on delivering quality work.”

Through June, the theater troupe is presenting an interactive murder mystery titled “Who Killed Lulu”. During the play, audience members are given minor roles to help solve the mystery and, at one point during the play, the audience votes on who poisoned the title character.

“Who Killed Lulu” cast members Carol Thompson, Steve Miller, Bernadine Cantrell and Yolanda Adams

“Who Killed Lulu” was performed in early May for a full house at Parc at Piedmont in Marietta. “We’ve had Theatre-To-Go here for the past 4 or 5 years, and the shows are always well-received,” said Beverly Dreger, the facility’s Event Coordinator and Activity Director. “Our residents anticipate it and we have a packed house and waiting list every time.”

As a former advertising agency owner, Ilgenfritz “cut her playwriting teeth” with two Atlanta organizations. She credits Jeff Adler at Horizon Theatre’s Senior Ensemble and Mira Hirsch, founder and sole artistic director of Atlanta’s Jewish Theatre of the South, with showing her the theatrical ropes. “After working with both theater groups, I finally started a third,” she said with a laugh.

“I wanted a theater group that would not necessarily only deal with aging.” Ilgenfritz says that she wanted “food for the mind and laughter for the soul — we need both.”

In addition to the professional theater performances, Atlanta’s Theatre-To-Go has developed an ongoing series of plays and classes. “No one else [in Atlanta] is doing this,” Ilgenfritz said.

“When we offer the participants theater, the first show we do is an acting class,” she continued. “Graduation includes putting on a short skit, which involves music and learning how to tell senior jokes.”

Following that, the participants learn to produce a reader’s theater entitled, “Misconception,” written by playwright Dick Meredith.

Parc at Piedmont residents Matthew and Jeanette Thomason participate in solving the mystery of “Who Killed Lulu”.

The seniors do not memorize lines, as they have the scripts in hand, but still have the fun of movement on stage. For some, it’s their first introduction to stagecraft.

After several Atlanta Theatre-To-Go performances for Cobb Senior Services, Ilgenfritz was asked about the possibility of creating a theatrical program supporting memory, attention and understanding. The company brought in Mari Martinez, a teaching artist at the Alliance Theatre who had worked in New York, as a facilitator. She developed and leads Reminiscence Theatre, a senior memory workshop, for Theatre-To-Go.

Last year, Ilgenfritz realized she needed help running the theater group and brought in David Rucker, III as the group’s artistic director.

Rucker said he’s learned from Ilgenfritz that seniors should not bow out just because they’ve reached a certain age.

“That’s what’s exciting to me,” said Rucker.

For details on upcoming shows, auditions and Theatre-to-Go programs, visit atlantatheatretogo.com or call the office at 404-256-3310.

Judi Kanne is a public health communications consultant and contributing writer to Atlanta Senior Life.