OP-ED: Jay Wilson Talks About “Arts’ Immeasurable Value”

Lately we’ve seen the effects of the pandemic on the performing arts. Audiences have disappeared. Live performances have been replaced by online performance attempts. Artists are struggling. However, on the positive side, I’ve witnessed first-hand a storytelling experience that uses simple technology – the telephone – to bring joy to those who are locked away from social interactions and who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Evergreen Seniors Centre, or rather the Guelph Wellington Seniors Association, has been operating an outreach program lead by facilitator Paula Frappier for several years. Before COVID-19, the program brought seniors to a location for a morning of entertainment, exercise, social interaction and a meal once a month as a way of keeping seniors active and involved.

Their were multiple reasons for the outreach, but the primary one was that these seniors were not necessarily able to attend events on their own, so the seniors’ centre reached out and brought them to the event. When COVID-19 hit, the program almost entirely shut down, but with the ingenuity of the program leaders, a new form of outreach was decided upon.

Currently the program is conducted over the telephone. The telephone was selected because in many cases these seniors don’t use computers. They are more familiar with a phone call. True, certain components of the program had to be dropped. There is no exercise component and, of course, lunch is no longer served, but something very magical and valuable has occurred.

When the program was live, I used to be invited from time to time to entertain the group. I had several variety shows that toured retirement homes and I would bring these shows to the outreach program for a morning of entertainment. I developed quite a following and was asked back frequently.

One day in the middle of this pandemic, I received an email from Paula asking if I would consider entertaining via the telephone. I was keen because I was now focusing my efforts on storytelling, and I found the idea of storytelling using the telephone very appealing, for it hearkened back to the days of radio drama; theatre of the mind. To me the telephone was a better alternative to Zoom as it left everything to the imagination. It seems we were correct.

Today, every first Friday of the month, I get on the telephone with a group of seniors and I tell stories. Every time the stories stir up memories and ideas, and every session ends with all of us talking at once, sharing memories, stories and comments. All feelings of isolation are completely gone. I can feel the change in the mood over the course of each event. The joy these stories bring is immeasurable and has reaffirmed for me the value of the performing arts as it pertains to our sense of well being.

The group has gone on to name the event “Jay Days” and they look forward to it every month. And me? It keeps me buoyed up too. After all, how can I not feel honoured having this event named after me? Jay Days! That, plus the fact that I have a new performance to create every month so I am kept busy doing what I love, telling stories.

When not talking on the phone, Jay Wilson conducts storytelling walking tours in Guelph. You can look for him by searching JayWalking Guelph.

Photo By Shari Lovell

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