Jilann Spitzmiller

Headshot of Jilann Spitzmiller

Photo by Genevieve Russell

Jilann Spitzmiller Transcript

Music Credit:  “New Life,” composed and performed by Antonio Sanchez from the Cd New Life, used courtesy of CamJazz, 2013.

Jo Reed: Let me set the scene: A rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The actors are Charlotte Fairchild as Puck and Dimo Condos as Oberon. They’re residents of The Lillian Booth Actors Home.  

Dimo Condos: Puck, I remember since once I sat upon promontr’y and heard a mermaid on a dolphin’s back uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath that the very rude sea grew civil at her song and certain stars shot manly from their spheres to hear the sea-maid’s music.

Charlotte Fairchild: la, la, la, la, la ,la ,la.

Dimo Condos: Ah, does thou- now does that remember.

Charlotte Fairchild: la, la, la, la, la.

Dimo Condos: Now that very time I saw, though thou could’st not, cupid all armed! A certain aim he tug at a fair vestal, throw’ned by the west, and loosed his love shaft.

Charlotte Fairchild: LA! La, la, la!

Dimo Condos: Many, manly from the sphere. Certain stars, uh, loose his love shaft, uh, smartly from his bow, as it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.

Charlotte Fairchild: Yes. Yes, yes.

Jo Reed: We just heard a scene from the documentary, Still Dreaming. It was produced and directed by Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller. And this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

The Lillian Booth Actors Home is an assisted living facility outside of New York City.  The residents, a combination of actors, entertainers, and performance novices, take on a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Two of the hottest young directors in New York City, Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld of the Fiasco Theatre Company, joined the project. There are casting calls, rehearsals, and the stage is set.  But we quickly discover, things are not what they seem, either for the characters in Shakespeare’s enchanted forest or for the residents of the home: all are struggling with perceptions of illusion and reality.  Through a rigorous rehearsal process, these performers, all over the age of 80, grapple with physical limitations and mental lapses: some passionately re-immerse themselves in their life’s work, some discover new talents, while others can’t overcome their diminished capacities. Throughout the process, award-winning filmmakers Hank Rogerson and Jilann Spitzmiller document the journey. The result is their film: Still Dreaming. Still Dreaming is an honest look at aging, creativity, mortality, and connection. I met Jilann Spitzmiller at the Conference for Creative Aging and asked her how this project came together:

Jilann Spitzmiller:  It was kind of a perfect storm. We had made a film, my husband and I, Hank Rogerson, had made a film called Shakespeare Behind Bars, several years ago, about 20 male inmates in a Kentucky prison, who did The Tempest, which is about forgiveness, and we were looking for a follow-up idea, and a funder suggested to us, "What about Romeo and Juliet in a nursing home?" And we thought that was a really great idea. So we started looking around at retirement facilities that might already be doing Shakespeare. The Lillian Booth Actors Home actually had a Shakespeare club. So we connected with them. They were really interested in doing something more robust. But they said, "Well, can you help us get the directors on board?" So we helped in that process. But the Lillian Booth hired them and brought them in.

Jo Reed:  So you reached out to Noah Brody and to Ben Steinfeld?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  That's right. Yeah, and we thought, from a filmic standpoint, that would be really interesting to have two directors because we could film them talking to each other, instead of doing interview after interview, you know, about the process, and that did indeed become a great dynamic in the film.

Jo Reed:  Absolutely, I thought it did. I was going to ask you about that and also, you could do without a voiceover?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Exactly, and we're, sort of, our filmmaking is try to just be really observational. You know, not even ask questions unless we really need to. So that worked out.

Jo Reed:  The home reached out to Noah and to Ben. What was their thinking? Why did they accept it?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Noah and Ben?

Jo Reed:  Yeah.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Well, you know, they had various reasons. One was it just worked out with their schedule. They had sort of a six-week block that was free. They were also interested in doing A Midsummer Night's Dream in a way they had never produced it before, themselves, as a part of their company, and I think they were curious. You know, they were curious to see if their method would translate to working with an older population and, you know, they're really, really talented guys, and in the Shakespeare world, they're sort of skyrocketing. But they've had no experience working with this generation and so it was really a challenge for them.

Jo Reed:  Did you arrive the first day that Ben and Noah did? Were you there earlier? Just take me through the process. How did it, how did it work?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Right. So as filmmakers, you know, we show up a few days before and we actually filmed Ben and Noah at Ben's house. They had never been to the home before. Everything had been transacted by phone. So they didn't really know who was going to show up at the first meeting. They didn't know what kind of health or other issues might be going on. So it was kind of interesting because they came in, just with a clean slate, and they really looked at the residents as actors, you know, instead of as, quote unquote, "older people." And so they were really curious what are these guys going to bring to the table with all of their experience that they've had. So that first day, we didn't know who was going to show up, and there was 21 people who came to the meeting from the resident population of between 80 and 100, and we ended up with 15 residents partaking in the play and, you know, some people had to drop out. Some people came in as last-minute replacements. It was kind of like a regular theater production, in a lot of ways.

Jo Reed:  I was struck by the first meeting, in which somebody immediately said, "Well, what is your vision for this?" They were not going to be treated as old people. They were there as actors, and so, "What's your vision, kid?"

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Absolutely. You know, they looked at these two as just two children coming in. You know, they really did and the character you're talking about, or the woman, is Aideen O'Kelly, who had lots of Broadway experience.

Jo Reed:  I saw her in Othello.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  You saw her in Othello.

Jo Reed:  I did, yes.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  With James Earl Jones.

Jo Reed:  Yes.

Jilann Spitzmiller:   And Christopher Plummer. So yeah, amazing. So, you know, she really grilled them. "What's your vision? Are we casting? Are we going to have a script? What is this all about?" You know, "I'm not just going to play around here." And they really had to step up and kind of explain themselves, you know. But their process was to come in and listen and to see what they had to work with, you know, and they weren't going to just come in and place a vision on top of this group because they didn't know anyone. You know, it wasn't their ensemble.

Jo Reed:  But at the same time, you had people at the home who were completely like, "This is acting. This is Shakespeare. We're not playing "I'm Okay, You're Okay" here. Because this is just not the way it's going to work. We're doing it."

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Right. It wasn't a touchy-feely, like, art therapy session, at all. It was serious, and to the guys' credit, they really treated everyone really professionally and had very high standards. So I think people had to kind of step up to that, you know, and there were some very experienced entertainers who had never done Shakespeare, like Charlotte Fairchild, who had an amazing career in song and dance on Broadway, you know, in Mame and Guys and Dolls and Damn Yankees and just on and on. You know, but she'd never done Shakespeare. So she was excited to try it and she actually has Alzheimer's so it's very, in a way, challenging for her. But she really enjoyed the process.

Jo Reed:  That was kind of an interesting reveal of her having Alzheimer's because it really wasn't mentioned for a while, and yet, I could not help but notice there was always an attendant with her so there were hints. But we really didn't find out until well, well, well into the film.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yeah, we wanted the viewers' experience to be organic and, basically, the way we experienced it as filmmakers, as outsiders coming in. You know, and with HIPPA and all these regulations, like, you're not just handed a folder, like "Here's this person and their medical history." You don't get that. You know, and,

Jo Reed:  And I think that's good.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yes. In a way, it was great. Because we did just come in and see them as people and performers and potential performers and people who wanted to learn and grow and engage. So the viewers, kind of, find out gradually what's going on with everyone, as we did, and not everything is answered.

Jo Reed:  Not everything is answered, and there was one woman who was cast as Helen, Gloria Albee. Talk about her. Because that was, you know, a heartbreaking trajectory.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Gloria is an incredible character. She was a playwright for many years, and even when we went Lillian Booth, she was telling us about a project she was working on, and she wasn't sure if she could act, and it turned out she was incredible. She was one of the best people in the room, but she suffers from dementia. So she always thought she was leaving, and she breaks the news to Ben, one of the directors, like, "You know, I'm sorry. But I'm going to leave. I'm going to see my friend in Arizona. So I won't be here." And Ben takes it at face value. "Oh, well, that's terrible news," you know, and then he goes and talks to the recreation director, and she says, "No, no. Gloria's actually not leaving. That's part of her pattern. You know, she thinks she is but tomorrow she'll wake up and, you know, it could be a different story." So throughout the film, we watched the sort of unfolding where Gloria clearly actually has a desire to go somewhere, but she never, well, she does go somewhere, and I won't give it away. But, you know, she's not there, ultimately, for the performance. But at the same time, I think she really enjoyed the process and she got a lot out of being there every day. You know, and that's really what it's about is that day-to-day. It's not the end result. It's what's happening today and is it enriching? Are you enjoying it? Are you being cared for? Are you being supported? And that's what I loved about what the staff of the home brought to the process. Because they really nurtured everyone through this very challenging production.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, and it really was, as you say, so much about process. I mean, the performance, what, it's over two hours, maybe? But they rehearsed every day for six weeks?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yes. Yes. Five days a week. You know, a lot of people were rehearsing at night and together, outside of the formal rehearsal process, and it was a 24/7 thing, in a lot of ways.

Jo Reed:  Well, one challenge, which certainly is a challenge for all actors, but was a particular challenge in this circumstance, was the issue of memorization. Are you memorizing the lines or aren't you, and can you?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Right. And what I loved about what Ben and Noah, their stance on it was, it doesn't matter if you memorize. You can build character. You can build relationships, even with the page in your hand, and someone like Aideen, who is, you know, the seasoned Broadway actress, she thought, "Oh, you can't even begin to act until you've memorized."

Harold: alright, are we memorizing these?

Ben Steinfeld: We, we,

Harold Cherry: No, I’m just asking because some people will have difficulties. Some people will have difficulty memorizing.

Dimo Condos: Are you talking about some people or are you talking about yourself?

Harold Cherry: Whatever.

Dimo Condos: You want to play Bottom without memorizing?

Harold Cherry: Of course I’m gonna memorize it.

Dimo Condos: Well, why do you ask “Do I have to memorize it?” What the hell kind of acting is that? Of course you have to memorize!

Ben Steinfeld: Okay, alright gentlemen, ok.

Noah Brody: From our point of view, it is not important to us. We believe, we know you can act without having memorized your lines because we have seen it now for over a week.

Dimo Condos: I haven’t seen any of that.

Ben Steinfeld: Well, your standards may be different than ours.

Aideen O’Kelly: We haven’t even started to attempt to act.

Noah Brody: I know, that’s why it’s far premature to assume that memorization is what’s required to get acting going. And I understand, Aideen, that you have strong feelings about that, I understand Dimo’s feelings about that-

Aideen O’Kelly: Yeah, I’m with Dimo on that one.

Noah Brody: I understand and we hope that you will memorize if you want to memorize. Not being memorized is not going to be a stumbling block or a problem in this production.

Jilann Spitzmiller: It actually didn't matter whether people had the paper or not. Most of them did keep their scripts, and even still with that, needed some help throughout the performance, you know, cues and movements and stuff. But again, I think it was just about them being present in the room and being allowed to play and experience this.

Jo Reed:  I was really struck by the way you framed the movie. Because, as we discussed, there really isn't a voiceover and very few interviews. But you did a couple of things, and one of them is that you gave us a backstory on, obviously, not all of the actors, but on a few of them. So we got to see Charlotte Fairchild in all her beautiful glory, and she was gorgeous. I found it very, very moving as a viewer.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yeah, I think it's important to see where these people have come from and to honor and respect what they've done. At the same time, we really tried to keep the film in the present tense and make it about what they're going through right now. But I think that when you see them in those old photographs, it really brings a lot of richness and poignancy to what they're doing. I know.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I think it was Ben who said, you know, "Great, for six weeks, I'll be confronting my own mortality." But there was, for me, something about seeing those pictures that really brought me up short, and it really was exactly about that. It really is about confronting one's own aging, one's own mortality.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  And ultimately, I think the message that goes a little further than that in the film is, seize the day. Grab each day. Make the most of your joys, your passions. Try something new. That all that has such value and richness.

Jo Reed:  Well, there were two actors who had never acted before. Because the Lillian Booth Home also takes spouses, family members, of people involved in the theater, and they both had fairly substantial, actually, really substantial roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And it was interesting to see the way they both kind of moved forward. One, very consciously, of doing something she was terrified of.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Right. So you're talking about Lynette.

Jo Reed:  I am talking about Lynette.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Right. Lynette Loose, who gets cast as Hermia, which is a big role and, you know, Hermia loves someone who her father forbids her to marry, and the incredible thing was that, in rehearsal, we filmed a scene with her and her Lysander counterpart, out in the gazebo outside. They were just rehearsing together and she reveals to him that, actually, that happened to her in real life. Her father made her marry someone she didn't love and she, obviously, she couldn't stand up to that and make a different choice. So as the rehearsal process progresses, she kind of has to face what that incident in her life that was very tragic, actually, and so she found her voice, I think, for the first time in her life, in the process of doing this play and being Hermia, who stands up for herself. You know, so it gave Lynette a pathway to finding her voice, which was incredible, and then there's Mary DePaulo, who, you know, obviously, at 84, we see her now and we think, "Oh, she should've been doing standup her whole life." She's hilarious, and her timing. She's never done anything. You know, her son is in the theater union and so that's how she gets into the home, and I think she's blossoming beyond her own boundaries like she's just never even realized that she's got this in her. So that's such a joy to see and so wonderful for the film. Because it brings in this comic relief, halfway through, that's just outstanding.

Jo Reed:  I mean, even when Lynette is having a full out breakdown, Mary is just,  "Don't worry yourself over something we're not even getting paid for."

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Exactly. She puts it in perspective.

Jo Reed:  She definitely puts in perspective. When you started that film, or even when you were in talks about it, what did you expect? You had to have some set of expectations?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Well, we really expected that there's a lot of love in A Midsummer Night's Dream. You know, there's these young lovers, and that was really exciting to us that the young lovers would be played by 80-year olds. So that was interesting. We didn't expect to go down this road of dreams versus reality, which we did end up going down, thematically. I thought people would be much more on their feet. I didn't realize the population that we were going to film would have so many challenges, mentally, physically. You know, so I was surprised at that, and that being said, I was surprised at how much they overcame that. The most surprising thing to me was how much people woke up in the process, how much they reconnected with things they had thought they had put away. So, you know, I think when I saw people reconnecting with what they love to do and feeling good about the level at which they could do it at now, that was so exciting, and I think that speaks to how important it is for all of us to engage in the arts as we age, in whatever capacity we can, you know.

Jo Reed:  Is that what surprised you, as well, that exact thing?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yes. I mean, I would've said, "Sure. I think the arts are important," but I didn't realize how critical they are. You know, I really saw people go from A to Z and through this rehearsal process. What I also didn't realize was how critical the idea of community was and doing it in a group together and how that broke through, sort of, isolation and depression, and people started laughing in week two. Week one, everyone was very serious. Week two, everybody started opening up and laughing and enjoying it. Week three, the challenges kicked in, and then again, the humor had to sort of come and lift everybody out of those challenges. So it was remarkable to watch.

Jo Reed:  It was the director of the home, the Lillian Booth Home said that at the end of this, what did he say? Less medication?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  They were able to reduce medication in a lot of people. Like, say, someone was on eight medications, they went down to four. That's something he told us. They could give a lot less psychotropic drugs, so depression was lifting and they could back off on the medications. Medical, blood pressure, things like that were improving. So not only physical ailment, but mental situations were improving. So they could really reduce people's medications as the process kept moving forward, and another thing he said that I found was really interesting was, this is Jordan Strohl, who runs the Lillian Booth. He said that also the whole population, the whole resident population, became excited and uplifted, even though there was 15 people in the play, there was another 80 who got something out of the process, too, just by knowing this was going on at the home, and then coming to the performances.

Jo Reed:  What was the biggest challenge in making the film? Not producing the play at the Lillian Booth Home, but for you as the filmmaker.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  I think the biggest challenge is funding, unfortunately, and it's always so important as a filmmaker to be able to articulate what you're doing and why you're doing it and who it's going to benefit and all that. And I think the society is still grappling with this idea that we're all aging, and the baby boomers are coming of age, and we're still in that shift towards this idea that old age can be really rich, and it doesn't have to be sad and all about decline, you know. But I think there's a stigma around the idea of old age, still, and I think that everyone in this field of creative aging is working to change that and so it's exciting to be on the inside and see all the rich possibilities when people have more time and they can actually follow their dreams and their passions again. But it was a real struggle to get the film funded, and I don't know if it was that. But now, I see audiences just eating this film up and it really striking a chord and making a difference for them, in the way they see their parents, in the way they see their own aging process. So unfortunately, that's sort of always the challenge, and I think that was it.

Jo Reed:  How did you fund the film?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  We did Crowdfunding. We did a couple Crowdfunding campaigns, which were key, and we had some foundation grants and some private donors. You know, you just sort of cobble it together. It's like a many irons in the fire kind of thing.

Jo Reed:  What was it about documentary film, rather than narrative film, that drew you?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  I think what I love is trying to make sense of life as it happens, and fit it into a story that other people can take in. It's so challenging to be on location and be in the room as life is unfolding, and thinking, "Okay. What's the subtext here? What's going on with this character? What's going on with our plot? You know, how is this all fitting into what we've already shot, and where are we going with this?" So I feel like it uses every shred of my being, you know, intellectual, physical, spiritual, emotional, and I feel like it's a really special thing to be able to be witnessing a real life unfold.

Jo Reed:  Here's the question I have, and I ask it as somebody who loves documentary film, and that is, when you are shooting as real life unfolds, do you ever think about how the camera can change what's unfolding in front of you? I mean, I have no idea how to get out of that dilemma, but I'm just wondering how you think about it.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Absolutely. Relationship is a key ingredient to making a documentary. So I think there used to be this sort of anthropological approach to documentary, which was, "I'm the filmmaker and I'm going to be objective, and this is my subject, and I'm not going to get close to them," you know, so, but I've found in my own filmmaking that relationship is everything. So I have to have integrity in that relationship. I have to bring my best self to that relationship. I have to open up and I have to create a real connection with these people I'm filming, and they need to know who I am and they need to know why I'm doing this, and then I think we have sort of equal footing. You know, it's never going to be quote unquote, "exactly how real life would unfold." There's always an influence of the camera, but we also do long-term films, where we keep coming back. We're there every day. We're there day after day after day after day. So people do drop their guard after a while, and they stop seeing the camera. They're just feeling us, I think, and also, I try to be nonjudgmental, you know, and just allow that person to be everything that they want to be.

Jo Reed:  A little bit like running, like after the first 20 minutes, you can just keep going?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Exactly. The adrenaline, the endorphins kick in. I wish it was like that.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, I know. And what is new? What is next?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  What is next is getting Still Dreaming out there far and wide. I think distribution has really changed. You know,

Jo Reed:  I was just going to, yeah. This is, you know, job number three or four, involved with the film.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  It's the hat. You've got the hat closet and we're putting on the distribution hat, and it used to be that you'd sign your rights over to a distributor and you'd just go on and make your next film and hope that you'd get some royalties. And I think what's really exciting is that now, we get to be more involved and there's less of a middleman, if you know how to sort of work that and that's good and bad. You know, in some ways, I would like to just go on to the next story. But in other ways, I'm really enjoying getting to know people in this field of creativity and aging, and it's really wonderful to go out and connect with people around the story.

Jo Reed:  Since you're actually getting to meet them this time, how have people been responding?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  More than any other film I've made or experienced, I mean, people are deeply moved by this, and it's really rewarding. Because you never know. You're making the film in your little room by yourself, after you go home, after you've shot, and you don't know. You're just following your impulses and your intuition. But the real test is putting it out there, and it's been incredible. I'm really honored and grateful.

Jo Reed:  Are you still in touch with any of the actors at the home?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yeah, so I just visited in March. We go as much as we can, and I sat with Joan and she played a bunch of music for me, and she's 90 and she has Parkinson's and she is in a wheelchair, and she shakes like crazy, terrible scoliosis. You put her in front of the piano and if you closed your eyes, you would think it was a completely able-bodied concert pianist. Incredible. Dimo, we're really close with. He has a big cactus collection, and we send him cactus from New Mexico, where we live. And Harold is still the same, and-

Jo Reed:  Harold played Bottom?

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Yes. Yeah. So he's kind of a trickster. A few people have passed, at this point, so we miss them all. But it makes me happy that they got to do this before they passed.

Jo Reed:  Thank you for sharing it with us. I appreciate it. It was a terrific film. Jilann, thank you for sharing with us.

Jilann Spitzmiller:  Thank you, Josephine.

Jo Reed:  Thank you. That is documentary filmmaker Jilann Spitzmiller.  We were talking about her film Still Dreaming. You can find out more about the film at stilldreamingmovie.com. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts.  

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. 

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. 

Transcript will be available soon.

Still Dreaming documents octogenarian actors taking on Shakespeare at the Lillian Booth Actors' Home.