Residents at Retirement Unlimited Inc. senior living communities across Virginia recently had a little more song-and-dance cheer in their Saturday mornings, thanks to Professor Wesley Young of Radford University’s Department of Theatre and Cinema.
Young taught a virtual course called “The Golden Years on the Great White Way: American Musical Theatre from the 1940s through the 1960s” to a select group of senior communities.
“I love it,” said Young. “I’ve always been drawn to older people. My grandparents were very influential in my life. And as a musical performer I love the subject matter too. When I teach the class I feel so good. It isn’t really work because I enjoy it so much.”
Young says he tries to focus course content around subjects and materials that audiences will recognize and appreciate. Participants explored entertainers, playwrights, composers and theatrical productions across two decades of early 20th century musical theater. Young also took his students through reconstructions of some shows, examining not only historic aspects in the evolution of the art form, but also showcasing the intricacies and complexity of creating individual musical theater productions.
The classes are part of a curriculum created by Retirement Unlimited Inc.’s signature program, RUI University.
“Wesley does such a wonderful job with the class,” said RUI University’s Academic Administrator Mary-Kate Hansford. “It’s a treat that many of our residents look forward to on weekends. He keeps the class upbeat and he’s very engaging. The class has one of our highest participation rates.”
Hansford says the course has been beneficial to residents because, especially during a time when socializing is more challenging, community members are able to engage with each other and reminisce together. She notes that since the classes take place over Zoom, the discussions bring together residents who live in entirely different parts of the state.
Seniors taking the class say they appreciate how the course gives them the opportunity to reflect on their youth.
“I thoroughly enjoy the class,” said Herb Michaelis, a resident taking Professor Young’s class. “It has brought back some great memories.”
Owned by the Fralin and Waldron families, Retirement Unlimited Inc. is a senior living management company based in Roanoke. Each RUI community features a unique roster of learning opportunities, including classes on history, cooking, foreign languages, music, architecture and more.
RUI President Doris-Ellie Sullivan says the organization’s focus on providing purpose and meaning for residents living in their communities led to the creation of RUI University in 2017.
“We recognized the desire of our residents and surrounding communities to continue to grow intellectually and socially, engaging in subject matter they love through a structured lifelong learning program,” she said.
Traditionally, RUI University has focused on offering face-to-face experiences. However, like all aspects of life, the coronavirus pandemic pushed most educational activities into virtual settings to protect residents and employees. The change offered an opportunity for Radford University to be involved.
Prior to the pandemic, Margaret Devaney, Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Radford, had been exploring the idea of offering art-based courses through RUI, but the physical distances between facilities across the state posed challenges for getting teachers to their locations. Once remote meetings became the norm, an opportunity opened up to attempt an online class for RUI’s residents. Devaney says that a historical look at musical theatre seemed like a good starting point for residents. She hopes that the relationship will continue, and that more classes will be offered during future sessions.
Young says he has enjoyed the opportunity to connect with the seniors in his class. He hopes that in the future, when the pandemic is a memory, he will be able to bring “Porterfield Ensemble,” a touring student group he manages, to some of the communities where he has been teaching.
RUI’s Hansford said, “We’re excited to be working with Radford University. Our residents are familiar with Radford University and its reputation. They are excited to be taking classes from such a well-known and prestigious institution.”