SENIOR CENTER — “If it’s hot, there’s a lot of booze and somebody named Big Daddy. You’re on pretty firm footing.”
Perhaps not what you’d expect to hear walking into the Santa Monica Senior Center on Ocean Avenue, but professional actor Brian Hamill is not emceeing Tuesday afternoon bingo.
Most Tuesdays between the hours of 12:30 and 2 p.m., Hamill transforms the northern end of the center into an improvisational comedy workshop for one and a half hours of mind-bending activities that keeps his troupe of senior actors on their toes.
That afternoon, two members of the group stood in front of the class, one with a book in her hands and the other testing out a southern drawl. The goal: for one to read lines from a random page in a random play while the other reacted as though in a Tennessee Williams novel.
Hamill, and other dedicated volunteers like him, do their work through the nonprofit organization Mob Rule, Inc., a loosely-bound coalition of community-minded individuals who run free workshops throughout the Los Angeles area.
The beauty of Mob Rule, Inc. is that anyone with an idea and some energy can get a class going with all the tax benefits of working through a nonprofit and none of the overhead. That’s because Lee Costello, Mob Rule’s president, runs much of the operation from her laptop.
“Everything raised goes directly to whatever they’re doing,” Costello said.
Mob Rule and the free senior improv class in Santa Monica got started 15 years ago by a group of ex-pats from Second City Improv in Chicago, a renowned improvisational school with alumni like Conan O’Brien, the Belushi brothers and Steve Carell.
They had night shows going at a small theater in Santa Monica. During day rehearsals, seniors would walk by and inquire what the shows were all about.
“A lot of people felt that what was going on might not be for them, that it was for kids,” Costello said. The actors invited the elderly in to do workshops in the space in the afternoons before performances, and a tradition was born.
Several of the seniors involved in the group today are the very same that took part when it was first founded, like Bruce Cohn, a veteran combat Marine in the Korean War and employee of Transamerica.
“I was here when it was two times a week at the Santa Monica Playhouse,” Cohn recalled. He met his girlfriend, Elaine Cohen, at the group.
The Second City improv method was built upon a series of games developed by theater educator, director and actress Viola Spolin, who worked as a drama supervisor for the Chicago branch of the Works Progress Administration’s recreational progress from 1939 to 1941.
Spolin worked largely with immigrants, Costello said, and needed activities that could reach across cultural, and linguistic, boundaries.
The games inspire players to be physical and spontaneous, with actors reacting to both their onstage colleagues and the audience.
A group of around 15 seniors act as the core of the group. Many, like Bruce Schroffel, use the free classes to keep their artistic abilities sharp. Schroffel sings in a barbershop quartet called the Oceanaires, but he’s also a working actor who does commercials and television shows.
Others in the group were deeply involved in show business, writing for the “Carol Burnett Show” or dancing with Jimmy Durante.
“We’re people who come from a creative background, and we need something creative to do,” Schroffel said.
Improv holds a special attraction, said Marilyn Brennan, a writer and longtime participant in the group.
“Acting is very different, there’s more control,” Brennan said. “Improv is like walking on a tight rope with no net.”
Moving, interacting, thinking on the fly. They’re all activities that Robin Davidson, the human services administrator for families, seniors and disability initiatives, has been trying to foster with new programming at the Senior Center.
The Santa Monica senior population can be easily isolated as high rents force out family members and friends pass away, and improv classmates help each other through diseases like dementia and the loss of beloved spouses.
Getting seniors engaged and out of their homes through improv, exercise activities like Zumba or even free lunches helps them stay healthy, Davidson said.
“I think that when something is offered that helps seniors get out of their home, the benefits are across the board,” Davidson said. “The social connection part of it alone is tremendous and important.”
Seniors who want more information on the improv group or other senior services can call the Senior Center at (310) 458-8644 or WISE & Healthy Aging at (310) 394-9871.