University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

Penelope Project

Collaboration between University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, LeadingAge and Sojourn Theatre Creates Opportunity for Seniors to Engage in Play Creation & Development

Successful initiative can be replicated in other senior living communities

MILWAUKEE, WI and WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 21, 2011) — The Peck School of the Arts Theatre Department and the Center on Age & Community (CAC) in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) and LeadingAge, in collaboration with Sojourn Theatre and Luther Manor senior living community located in Wauwatosa, WI, announce the successful launch of The Penelope Project, a unique program to improve the quality of life for people who live, work and visit in long-term care settings through creative engagement.  

The Penelope Project uses the story of Penelope from Homer's Odyssey to engage an entire long-term care community in the creative process. Discussion groups, movement exercises, visual art, stories, and music have all emerged from this multi-year project that culminated this month in the performance of FINDING PENELOPE, a professionally produced, original world premiere play presented inside the care facility.  

Penelope was selected as the keystone character since she waited 20 years for her husband Odysseus to return from war. She fended off suitors, raised her son alone and oversaw the kingdom. This play examines the complex inner life and trials of Penelope — the heroine who did not go out to conquer the world, but stayed at home.  

As director of the Center on Age & Community (CAC) in UWM's Helen Bader School of Social Welfare along with a joint appointment in the Theatre Department of the Peck School of the Arts, Anne Basting has made the arts an integral part of the CAC's work. "We aim to create enduring and meaningful projects in which staff, residents, families, students and artists can learn and grow through collaboration," says Basting. She sought out the collaboration of the Portland, Oregon-based professional Sojourn Theatre company partly due to their nationally recognized expertise in site-based performance, since she planned to write the play in a unique "roaming" format (what Sojourn calls a "performance journey"), taking playgoers and actors on a half-mile route through the living spaces of Luther Manor.  

Attendance at the play's four public performances (which featured Luther Manor community members, students and Sojourn Theatre company members as the performers) was at maximum capacity, with patrons ranging from avid theatergoers to friends and family of staff and residents.  

"This was a boldly ambitious project. With our successful debut of FINDING PENELOPE this week, I know that The Penelope Project can provide a road map for other senior living communities around the country to be equally bold about bringing meaning and creativity into their daily lives," adds Basting.  

The experience has been extremely powerful for Luther Manor, an accredited Continuing Care Retirement Community (CCRC) serving nearly 800 residents on a 29-acre campus in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin with more than 693 full-time and part-time employees.  

"Having students here on a regular basis both creating art and developing relationships throughout the entire Luther Manor community was a new experience," says Beth Meyer-Arnold, director of adult day services. Staff members also have become involved, as they see the difference it makes to the residents when they are truly engaged instead of just entertained.  

"Another thing I've learned is to look at these projects not as something added to the other work we do—it is the work we do. While keeping people safe, providing good health care and serving warm meals is vital, we're also focused on building connections with the people who live here," says Meyer-Arnold. 

Adds Larry Minnix, President/CEO, LeadingAge, "The Penelope Project is a powerful example of collaboration and creativity in aging services. From designing sets to sharing script ideas, this project is both an outlet for older adults' artistic talents and an opportunity to showcase how partnerships can help our members expand the world of possibilities for aging."

About the Process

For eight weeks during fall 2010, conversation groups at Luther Manor were facilitated by UWM students enrolled in undergraduate Storytelling and Playwriting courses. Fly Steffens, a junior in the theatre program, describes how the Penelope story provided a springboard for interactions with the Luther Manor community. "We would ask questions about Penelope's appearance, or her gardens. Sometimes, people would communicate with only a gesture — but that was enough."  

These discussions inspired poems, songs, dances, drawings and stories (both fiction and nonfiction), from the Luther Manor residents and day participants. Steffens says the importance of keeping a memory alive and passing a memory on were among the most frequent themes in her group. Based on their experiences at Luther Manor, the students worked in teams to write their own 10-minute plays, performing four original scenes on December 14 to an audience of more than 200 at Luther Manor.  

Auditions last fall to select student actors for the play itself were led by Maureen Towey, director of the play and a Sojourn Theatre associate artist. As a company, Sojourn focuses on the relationship of artists, audiences, and place during the theatrical event. This approach demands presence and actual exchange, taking artists and audiences alike beyond documentary expression and community-based dialogue to create compelling, interactive performance events.  

A team of nine Sojourn company members and affiliated artists from around the country developed the FINDING PENELOPE script, directed and designed the production, and performed in the play. "Exploring the Odyssey with this population was really interesting to us," says Michael Rohd, Founding Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre. "We've worked with communities of elders in a variety of ways, but never so intensely and so closely."  

The Penelope Project is funded by supporters of the arts and of social services, including the Wisconsin Humanities Council, Wisconsin Arts Board, Helen Bader Foundation, Brookdale Foundation, the MAP Fund (a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation), Forest County Potawatomi Community Fund, Faye McBeath Foundation, UWM Theatre Department and Wisconsin Representatives of Activity Professionals.  

For more information, find Penelope at or on Facebook.

About LeadingAge

LeadingAge is an association of 5,400 not-for-profit organizations dedicated to expanding the world of possibilities for aging. We advance policies, promote practices and conduct research that supports, enables and empowers people to live fully as they age.  

About the Peck School of the Arts 

The mission of the Peck School of the Arts is to provide the highest quality education and professional training in the arts at the baccalaureate and master's degree levels. The school is committed to recruiting faculty, staff, and students who reflect the richness and diversity of art-making in a variety of cultures. As the only school of the arts in Wisconsin in a major urban environment, the Peck School of the Arts encourages collaboration with community arts organizations and artists to provide professional experiences for its students.  

About the Center on Age & Community (CAC) in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare 

The Center on Age & Community strives to combine the UWM's expertise with the experience of those who work in the field of aging to create innovative ways of improving our lives as we age. The center's activities focus on three main goals: to lead the field of long term care by offering cutting edge educational programs and products; to create national models of person-centered dementia care through targeted applied research projects and consulting; and to raise awareness of CAC offerings and events through effective communication.  

About Sojourn Theatre

Based in Portland, Oregon and led by Founding Artistic Director Michael Rohd, Sojourn Theatre is an ensemble of ten core professional artists making new performance around the country. National/international touring, a body of 22 major works, and a reputation for consistent innovation as artists and engagement practitioners offers their team of performers, designers, and logistical wizards the opportunity to explore various projects on the road and at home. The 11-year-old company's work is featured regularly at conferences and universities nationwide as a "best practice model" for arts-based civic dialogue projects. In 2005, Sojourn was one of only 12 National Exemplar Organizations selected by the Ford Foundation/Americans for the Arts as "important and vital incubators of emerging artists' work, sites of artistic experimentation and innovation, and leaders in community and civic engagement." For more information, visit

About UWM  

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is one of two public doctoral research universities in the state. More than 1,600 faculty and instructional staff engage in a wide range of research leading to discoveries that enhance the quality of life for the people of Wisconsin. UWM offers more than 30,500 students a comprehensive liberal arts and professional education through its 180 degree programs. In addition to the university's main 104-acre campus located on Milwaukee's East Side, UWM properties in Greater Milwaukee include Lake Michigan inner-harbor acreage for expansion and renovation for the university's School of Freshwater Sciences and Innovation Park in Wauwatosa. Space in the historic Pabst Brewery development downtown is being designed for the School of Public Health.  

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