My “Second Act” of LifeJuly 22, 2019
My darlings, today’s Guest Contributor post is from the wonderful Lee Gale Gruen. Lee Gale talks about her life once she was newly retired and how she forged a deep bond with her father during that time through acting classes. I hope you enjoy this sweet story!
Newly Retired And Ready For More
I was 60 and newly retired from my 37-year career as a probation officer with Los Angeles County. I was lost and didn’t know what to do with myself. A friend told me about classes for seniors at a local community college. I looked in the catalog and found a scene study class under the Theater Arts section, but didn’t know what that meant. I just assumed that the students sat in their seats and went around the room, each one reading a line or two from a play, before discussing and analyzing it. I’d always enjoyed plays and I figured I could handle that, so I enrolled.
The First Day of Class
I walked into the classroom on the first day. Everyone there seemed to know each other; they had obviously been taking the class for a while. I was the new kid on the block and felt a bit intimidated. After I found a seat, a man approached me.
“You want to read this with me,” he said, holding out a few sheets of paper.
“Okay,” I answered, not quite understanding what he meant.
He walked up to the front of the room and turned to see if I was following him.
“Come on,” he said with a spark of irritation in his voice since I hadn’t moved from my chair.
Oh my God, we’re supposed to read standing in front of everybody?
I felt like running out, but how could I? I was a mature senior after all. My heartbeat ramped up in volume. During my career, I had worked with murderers, robbers, rapists and the like, the most reviled members of society. Nevertheless, I had never conquered my agonizing stage fright ever since I had to give a book report in front of my class in grammar school. The other kids always snickered and teased the poor sucker trying to read their essay.
Overcoming My Fear
Slowly and painfully, I made my way to the front of the class. I finally looked at the script I was holding; it was a scene from Death of a Salesman, an exceptionally complex play. I had never acted in my life nor had any aspirations to do so. Help!
I began to read my lines in a tiny, shaky voice. All of a sudden, a strange thing happened. I became so engrossed in the role that I completely forgot a roomful of strangers was watching and judging me. Maybe even snickering. When we finished, everyone clapped. I looked up and realized where I was and that I was not Willy Loman’s wife from the play. What a high–I was hooked!
A few weeks later, my mother died and my typically charismatic father was depressed and withdrawn.
“Come with me to my acting class, Daddy,” I blurted out without even thinking about it. “You can just sit in the back of the room and you don’t have to do anything.”
It took some convincing, but I finally wore him down.
The Start of Something Beautiful
We entered the classroom a few days later and sat in the last row. About midway through the class, the teacher called on my father to come up front and participate in an improv exercise with another student. I was sure he wouldn’t want to do it, but he stood up and walked jauntily toward the front. While performing, he really seemed to enjoy himself.
On the way home, Dad asked, “So, what time are you picking me up next week for our class?”
That began a magical journey attending the class for the next three years. We bonded more during those years than we had in the previous 60. I started writing scenes for us since there wasn’t any professional material available for an 85-year-old man. The only real writing I had ever done was as a probation officer, composing reports for judges to assist them in sentencing criminal defendants. I had never done any creative writing. Nevertheless, I had to try.
Dad and Daughter Scene Work
I wrote humorous Dad and Daughter scenes where Dad was an irascible old man and Daughter was always tearing her hair out with his antics—not so far from the truth. We performed our scenes in the acting class showcases twice a year onstage before live audiences. We were the only senior father and daughter team ever in that class and the audience members adored us.
I started to gain more confidence in myself and my stage fright pretty much disappeared. I networked with other class members and learned how to go on auditions for real acting jobs. After a few awkward tries, I got better. I had professional headshots taken and I created a resume–which was pretty sparse since I only had acting roles from what I’d done in class.
Soon, I booked my first paid acting job. It was a commercial, and I earned $400. I couldn’t believe it! Newly retired, didn’t they know I would have done it for free?
Becoming A Paid Actress
After a while, I secured an agent, went on even more auditions and booked more jobs. I slowly started to feel like a real actress as my resume began filling up. Of course, I shared it all with Dad who was living in a nursing home by then. He was experiencing acting vicariously through me. We loved talking about acting whenever we could.
I have now appeared in numerous roles in commercials, television, film, theater, and print media. I worked as-needed for many years at UCLA Medical School, portraying patients for student training. I’ve played such diverse roles as a granny rapper, a sexy senior and a trash talking gangster granny with a machine gun. At one point, I was one of six exercise dancers backing up Jane Fonda in an exercise DVD she produced for the senior market. A few years ago, I appeared on TV in a comedy skit on the Film Independent Spirit Awards playing the mother of show host, Patton Oswalt.
A Woman Reinvented
The story of my transition from newly retired probation officer to senior actress has been written about in Time Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, AARP and in Marlo Thomas’ book, which profiles sixty women who have reinvented themselves.
I wrote a memoir about it all in a 2013 piece Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class. I included all of the Dad and Daughter scenes I wrote and performed with my father in the class showcases. I’ve been blogging for five years now. I am also a public speaker, who aims to inspire Baby Boomers, seniors, retirees and those newly retired to find joy, excitement, and satisfaction after they retire.
My “second act,” began only because I read that scene in a senior community acting class 18 years ago instead of running out as I had originally wanted.
Have you joined a class or activity in your retirement? We want to hear about it! Join the conversation in the comments below or on Facebook and Instagram.
About the author: Guest Contributor Lee Gale Gruen:
Lee Gale Gruen is an actress, author, speaker, and blogger who lives in the East San Francisco Bay Area. Read about the ways she continues to reinvent herself in her retirement and learn more about her book here. Lee Gale can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.