It’s Never Too Late to Be a Star at Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center

Julienne Penza
Julienne Penza. Photo credit: Courtesy WHBPAC

Ever see a movie or play and think, “I could do that”?

The good news is now you can. And you don’t have to go far to do it.

The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center is offering seniors 65 and older the chance to work with professional artists through their life-long learning program “Melodies and Memories.” The 35 people who attend will have the opportunity to perform either together or solo: singing, doing scenes or readings.

Now in its fourth year, Emilie and Michael Corey have been supporters since the program began. The fall 2012 and spring 2013 seasons were co-sponsored with the New York State Council on the Arts and their current co-sponsor is MetLife.

Julienne Penza, the program’s theatrical director is very active in the creative aging movement and was a guest speaker at the 2012 National Guild for Community Arts Education Conference in Dallas, Texas. We spoke with her regarding the acclaimed program.

The name “Melodies and Memories” is great. Where did it come from?

As we were developing the program, we knew we wanted to use reminiscences and integrate theater and music. Research indicated seniors would gravitate to the music side of the program, so we decided to use the melodies to trigger the memories.

Would you describe what one of the classes might look like?

On a typical day, new students sit on stage near a piano, while veterans head to one of the classrooms. Seated, warming-up exercises begin with stretching, which links breathing to correct singing posture, an essential for effective singing. The singing warm-ups are accompanied by music and students are introduced to music reading concepts, such as repeats and breath notation. Each student receives a large print music book.

Meantime, once the veteran seniors warm up, the theater teaching artist describes an improvisation (today’s skit is about a hospital supervisor discussing a quarterly review with a nurse) and then requests volunteers. The class engages in brainstorming, deciding on circumstances and new dimensions for the characters. The students are asked to delve a little deeper—to think about relationships and circumstances from their own lives on which to base the exercise.

After the break, the teaching artists swap locations and repeat the lessons focusing on concepts appropriate for that group. At the end of the day, everyone gathers onstage around the grand piano to sing a short farewell song.

Do many people sign up for classes year after year, and do you believe they inspire newcomers?

Veteran students speak to their own experiences with the program, and we find that they are our best ambassadors. We have a strong corps of returnees.

Would you tell us about the other teaching artists?

Singer and actress Valerie Di Lorenzo has taught in schools and organizations throughout the country including Lincoln Center. For over 15 seasons, Valerie has performed the National Anthem for the New York Mets.

Retired head of music for the Southold school system, musical director, Pat Feiler’s expertise is in teaching people to read music. Pat has also been musical director for countless productions on the North Fork.

Accompanist Dr. Peter Pece holds a Ph.D.
in Neuromusicology and is a professor at Stony Brook University. Pece has arranged and
performed musical revues for many people including President [George H.W.] Bush and Prime Minister [Margaret] Thatcher.

What are some of the benefits people derive from attending the program?

The majority of our students report feeling both physically and mentally healthier. A sense of community and social engagement is also a factor as some people keep in touch once the session ends.

You shared a comment from an artist who said the class was a gift because it helped her to not be afraid of getting older. Are there other moments you would like to mention?

My favorite story is about a woman named Rosemary. Just before the performance started, she asked if she could change one of her lines to “get a bigger laugh. She did get a big laugh and after the performance she grabbed me by the arm and said “it’s official. I’ve been bitten by the acting bug.” She was 90 years old. We’re always discovering new chapters in our lives, and I’m glad we’ve become a new chapter for our participants!

If someone was sitting on the fence about participating, what would you say to them?

Give it a go. You’ll be amazed at what you’re capable of and more importantly—you’ll have fun!

The program ends with a performance on Sunday, November 17. Classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays, through November 14 from 9:30 a.m. until noon. The cost is $80. For more info, contact WHBPAC at 631-288-2350 or visit

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