Foundations of Intentionality: Intergenerational Theater and Community Building

In my continuing endeavor to understand how the arts, specifically theater, may promote collaboration and more inclusive community development, I partnered with my roommate to study the effects of two intergenerational theater programs on participant perceptions. Neda Norouzi is a doctoral student in the School of Architecture + Design intrigued by how physical environment affects collaboration between individuals of different age groups. In discussing our overlapping interests, we decided to explore what intergenerational theater programs exist, how they seek to encourage the co-mingling of age groups and what long-term impacts, if any, their efforts might portend for community building.

Both programs we investigated have roots in specific disciplines and approaches. The directors and staff of the New York theater program we examined, Mind the Gap (MtG), have backgrounds in community-based theater. In contrast, the staff of the second initiative we studied, the Intergenerational Learning Center (ILC), in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area, is grounded in education and human development. Although both programs have the goal of fostering connections across age groups, their leaders’ perspectives on how best to approach that aim, and thus their methodologies, differ tremendously. The Intergenerational Learning Center welcomes individuals from different age groups to collaborate in producing an annual play. Mind the Gap invites selected applicants to participate in a scriptwriting process during which youths and seniors are partnered, interview one another about their lives and experiences, and interpret what they hear from the other in the plays they write.

Only a handful of articles and books have addressed intergenerational theater. These studies have been rooted in multiple fields, including community-based theater, community development, critical theory, democratic theory and performance studies. In Roots & Branches, Arthur Strimling (2004) argued that the rationale for intergenerational theater is the erosion of the traditional family unit in which different generations traditionally interacted. As he contended, “we have lost an essential part of ourselves that can only be regained through lasting, intimate contact between the generations” (p. 5). Intergenerational theater seeks to address this challenge and foster collaboration among different age groups by offering opportunities for all those engaged to participate in the theatrical process in a variety of ways. Scholars argue that intergenerational theater participants benefit from their involvement by gaining a sense of agency through self-expression, learning new skills and knowledge from those with whom they are collaborating and actively reflecting on the arc of their lives. When they succeed, such programs build trust among individuals of different ages, create shared history and develop intergenerational relationships that may later lead to stronger social networks within communities (Strimling 2004, Petherbridge & Kendall 2011, Gildin et al. 2013).

Michael Warner has coined the phrase poetic world making to capture the potential of theater or art more generally to construct new understanding, identities and publics, even when compared to the deliberative discourse prescribed by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas (2002). Both Warner and Cvetkovich (2012) have highlighted art’s use of affect—the emotion and poetics artists employ to engage others—to support the construction of audiences. Affect can help individuals feel a part of a community or communities, whether they participate in the process of art making or merely watch as spectators. Art may also be used to “shock” audiences out of their comfort zones so that they might reflect on their assumptions and consider and possibly change them (Marcuse 1978). Art’s innate capacity to play this role stands in contrast to many traditional, enlightenment-inspired notions of community building that rely instead wholly on rational discourse and expert analysis.

The theatrical process can also encourage citizen agency, engagement and participation. Many researchers have cited play during the theatrical process as a way of actively engaging different groups in interpersonal communication, respectful dialogue, awareness and reflexivity (Gusul 2009; Hinthorne & Schneider 2012, p. 6). These functions of play mirror those capacities and habits of mind necessary for democracy. Civil society theorist Peter Levine has argued for merging work and actions with reflexivity, active listening and discussion among a diverse array of participants to bring about more “deliberative democracy” within and among groups. As he has contended,

The participants will not simply meet, talk, listen, judge and reach conclusions. Rather, their talk will be sporadic, sandwiched between other activities such as working, playing, advocating or performing together. Their communication will not be purely civil or rational. They will not merely exchange proposals and reason but will give personal testimony, tell stories, form friendships, express self-interest, communicate with anger or irony, and indicate positive emotions such as camaraderie and even love (Levine 2013, p. 42).

While Levine focuses primarily on activities addressing public problems, often through participation in nonprofits, intergenerational theater can also encourage those participating to share their views, interests and experiences and jointly deliberate concerning them. These are the fora in which relationships and mutual understanding are created—through discussion, working together, play and tackling concrete projects. These are ways of building a common narrative among individuals or between groups, creating the potential for larger community impacts.

This argument implies the issue of intentionality, defined not only as deliberate action, but also reflecting a certain level of foundational knowledge, so as to be strategic in character. While the potential evidently exists for intergenerational theater to increase levels of association among members of different age groups, as described by Levine, and to create possibilities at a larger scale, is a specific level of intentionality needed to turn that potential into reality? Before it pursues these types of interventions, should a group research the theoretic frameworks and, to some extent, absorb the culture undergirding this kind of endeavor? And if so, toward what level of intentionality must an individual or group aim to create new and lasting relationships that might encourage participation and community building?

During our examination of the two intergenerational theatre programs, Neda and I interviewed program directors and staff, and collected more than 30 questionnaires from program participants. Based on this data, I argue that the New York program evidences more examples and forms of intentionality than its Minnesota counterpart. Like the ILC, the Mind the Gap initiative addresses the goal of building intergenerational relationships by exposing participants to members of different age groups and encouraging exchange. Through its methodology, however, it creates clearer opportunities for “play” and collaboration than does the ILC. MtG also offers its participants a theoretical frame and the knowledge and vocabulary by which to make sense of their efforts. In questionnaire responses, more participants in the Mind the Gap program referenced “self-discovery,” “reflexivity” and an intention to take what they have learned and use it elsewhere than did those engaged in the ILC. Mind the Gap, with its staff’s understanding of the nuances of intergenerational theater, appears self-consciously and conscientiously to urge participants to use their newly acquired knowledge to work to build community following their involvement with the initiative. Interviewees from both programs, however, described a deepening of their understanding of the other generations’ complex characteristics. Anecdotal evidence also suggested that participants in both efforts learned from one another and also engaged outside the confines of their programs, but this occurred to a larger degree for those involved with MtG.

So, how intentional must program designers be when approaching the goals of intergenerational theater? Both nonprofit organizations we investigated demonstrate that offering space, opportunity for play and the consideration of affect can bring about greater understanding among individuals. The extent to which these effects can contribute to a larger epistemic shift in groups beyond those participating is debatable. Having the theoretical understanding and vocabulary to reflect on their intergenerational experience and self-consciously translate that experiential learning across different contexts seems important because this process can build the capacity and agency of participants, giving them the tools to engage in numerous community activities and contribute to building more resilient, inclusive and deliberate communities. Can this process encourage a reflective, thoughtful and caring community without the need for a theoretically informed and shared vocabulary to express the experience or new understanding beyond its isolated theater context? The social sciences have long emphasized shared language to promote common understanding. But does this perspective diminish the capacity for accomplishment of those without that mutual language and knowledge base? Based on the evidence we have gathered to date, it seems to me that sharing knowledge and vocabulary across professional boundaries and disciplines is important. Such efforts, however, must be intentional, respect other knowledges and vocabularies, and seek to elicit further conversation, rather than foreclose it.


Cvetkovich, A. (2012). Depression: A public feeling. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Gildin, M., R. Binder, I. Chipkin, V. Fogelman, B. Goldstein and A. Lippel (2013). “Learning by Heart: Intergenerational Theater Arts.” Harvard Education Review 83 (1).

Gusul, M. (2009). Intergenerational Theater and the Role of Play (Masters Thesis). Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta.

Hinthorne, L. & K. Schneider (2012). “Playing with Purpose: Using Serious Play to Enhance Participatory Development Communication in Research.” International Journal of Communication 6: 2801-2824.

Levine, P. (2013). We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The Promise of Civic Renewal in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, H. (1978). The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics. Boston: Beacon Press.

Petherbridge, J., & Kendall, D. (2012).The process and impact of intergenerational theater making. ASSIA: Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts, 13(4), 298-306.

Strimling, A. (2004). Roots & Branches: Creating Intergenerational Theater. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books.

sarahlyonhill2Sarah Lyon-Hill is a second year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech.She is investigating alternative approaches to international and community development. Most recently she has been researching the potential of arts-based civil society organizations (CSOs) to help communities address past trauma and conflict so their populations can develop the collaborative capacity to engage  actively in their own development. Sarah works as a graduate assistant in the VT Office of Economic Development. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Beloit College in French and International Relations and her Master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.

Editor’s Note: This is the 50th RE: Reflections and Explorations essay, a notable milestone for this series. Special thanks to all of the contributors who have shared their thoughts and insights thus far. Your cumulative body of work is a tribute to the reach of your interests and intellectual imagination, and to the University you represent. Sincerely, MOS



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