Today we’re catching up with BAC teaching artist Rachel Garbus, a writer and performer who worked with senior citizens in a podcasting residency at Coney Island Seaside Innovative Senior Center as part of the SU-CASA initiative. This is Rachel’s first year as a teaching artist with BAC. Read on to learn about her experience and to hear the seniors’ stories for yourself!
What art forms do you work in, in or out of your teaching artist capacity?
I am a writer and performer. I write satire and cultural criticism, and write and perform improv, sketch comedy, live lit, and film. I also facilitate oral history and storytelling projects. Whew!
Why did you choose podcasting as a genre to work in with your seniors?
I’ve done intergenerational oral history podcasts before, and found that the format was surprisingly accessible and appealing to people of all ages. Audio recording is such a natural complement to storytelling, and the podcast format in particular is a concise, entertaining way to share stories. Podcasts are also such a popular new media form, and I wanted to connect that to one of our very oldest pastimes, storytelling, for folks who have the greatest life experience and the richest troves of stories!
How did the seniors initially receive the idea? Were they familiar with the form already?
People were somewhat familiar with podcasts – and of course familiar with audio media because of radio – but the original draw I think was the storytelling, which I introduced first. The recording equipment was a fun novelty in the beginning, but once they became familiar with it they took to it with gusto! We worked on an episode about the Center itself, where my class walked around and interviewed members of the Center, and they managed all the microphones and interviewing. We looked like a regular team of radio producers! And once we had a full podcast episode to listen to, the entire project made more sense, and that helped generate enthusiasm for the next episodes.
Walk us through your process of building the podcast with the seniors:
We started with storytelling as format: what makes a great story told live? How do we connect the details and the emotional experiences of our stories to make them entertaining and compelling? Folks practiced telling their stories, and the group would give feedback on which parts to develop further, how to end with a great last sentence, and how to deepen the emotional journey. Then I introduced the recording component; we practiced speaking into microphones and listened back to hear what we needed to adjust. For our first episode, everyone told stories, and two members of the class narrated between stories. Later, we traveled around the Center to record interviews with staff and other members, catch the sounds of life, and narrate. Finally, our culminating event was a live storytelling show, where participants told new stories in front of an audience, which was recorded and is now being edited into our final episode!
Did anything about the experience surprise you?
So much! I was surprised by how quickly people jumped on the format – there was no hesitation around being recorded and telling stories into a microphone. My narrators needed no training at all to be entertaining hosts; they shared funny anecdotes and riffed with each other as if they’d been hosting podcasts for years! They were all great interviewers and had thoughtful questions for everyone they recorded. And while I am a sucker for any true story, I was beyond delighted by how hilarious and thoughtful and poignant their stories were. I truly enjoyed every single day. And our podcast name, Senior Moments, came from one of our participants, which is about as perfect a name as any I could ever have dreamt up!
I was also surprised by how easily the concept of storytelling and memory translates into an art form like audio recording. Several participants remarked that my class reminded them of memory class, which is a weekly class at the same center where folks share memories and converse about the past. Classes like that are a crucial support for seniors to reflect on their rich life history, and to preserve and protect their memories. I am compelled by the preservationist aspect of audio recording: podcasts create a space where those memories can be captured, both for the enjoyment of the storytellers, and to share with the world!
Do you have more episodes planned?
Stay tuned for Episode 3, our live storytelling show, out soon on SoundCloud!