From the Front Lines: Shakespeare Fest Founder Embraces CCRC Role

From the Front Lines is a Q&A series from Senior Housing News. Our aim is to get out of the C-suite from time to time to focus on some of the interesting and dynamic people who work at the forefront of the senior living industry. Have a colleague who does something cool and works in a senior living community? Drop us a line.

As a longtime theater professional in New York City, Jena Necrason taught many of the city’s up-and-coming young thespians. Now, she’s working with older adults at Wake Robin, a 332-unit* continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Shelburne, Vermont.

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Necrason currently serves as the community’s program and events coordinator, where she helps the CCRC’s residents discover new interests or participate in activities they already love. Before that, she taught students with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She is also the co-founder and artistic director of the Vermont Shakespeare Company, which stages a handful of performances each year.

Senior Housing News recently caught up with Necrason to learn more about how she uses her theater background to enrich the lives of Wake Robin’s residents.

SHN: Describe the community where you work.

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Necrason: Wake Robin is a CCRC in Shelburne, Vermont. We have a beautiful campus that’s located up on a hill, about a five minute drive from the town center.

We have two dining rooms and a variety of different facilities that all of the residents use, from an aquatic center and a fitness room to an exercise studio and an events space. There are also a lot of communal activities on a daily basis.

What are your responsibilities as program and events coordinator?

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I oversee cultural, educational and wellness programming and scheduling on campus, and I organize opportunities to attend cultural, educational and leisure events off campus.

Another large part of what I do is develop and implement our lifelong learning program, which is called Inquire. We have a fall semester and a spring semester. We might offer four or five different series per semester. Those can run from lectures, where we have guests speak on a certain topic, to hands-on classes, where we bring in a professional practitioner to a run a class. It might also involve day trips or overnight trips revolving around a theme.

How did you get into the senior living industry?

I actually spent 20 years living in New York City as a theater professional. I worked as an actor and a director, and I taught for 20 years at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting. I taught for their professional conservatory program, as well as New York University’s Tisch drama department.

I also founded a theater company here in Vermont, which is why I ended up moving here. My husband and I run the Vermont Shakespeare Festival. We were living in New York and coming up here in the summer to do theater, and in 2014 we left our jobs in New York and moved up here to develop this nonprofit arts organization.

When we moved, I was looking for full-time work here and I saw that Wake Robin was hiring. It’s a very creative position, and it’s a very collaborative position. Those are things that are real elements of theater work. My experience with producing professional theater and my experience with teaching was what got me the job.

What are some of your residents’ favorite activities?

There is a real interest in classical music here. There is definitely an interest in the visual arts. They also have an interest in dance, theater and opera.

One Inquire program topic in the last year-and-a-half has been a program called the “Human Understanding of the Economy: How Vermont is Creative Meeting Economic Challenges.” I had a number of speakers from local nonprofits who are working on the front lines of solving the economic problems and challenges in the state.

We had something last semester called the “Future of Food,” where we watched a Vermont PBS television series called Local Motive, and then someone featured in the episode came and spoke to the residents on topics such as food production, food processing, farm-to-institution, food distribution, the role of being a consumer in today’s world, and how it’s connected to climate change. Environmental issues are a big interest here.

We’re also having a Moth storytelling workshop for Inquire. We have a regional producer for the Moth in Vermont, and so we’re doing a storytelling workshop, then we’re going to have a Moth StorySlam here in a couple weeks where we’ll have residents doing a storytelling show.

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Wake Robin’s residents also make maple syrup and tend to beehives, right?

Maple sugaring is definitely a big part of the community here. We have a sugar shack on campus, and it is all resident-driven. All of this is maintained, implemented, by residents. The sugar shack is quite a social scene, and it’s where much of the community and storytelling happens.

There is a forest here, so the residents tap the trees and collect the sap. They’ve got a whole system and schedule of who’s doing what and when. It lasts for a good couple of months. Then, they boil and create maple syrup. They bottle it and share it with the community here, and they also sell it in our gift shop on campus.

As far as beekeeping goes, it’s a little bit of a walk away from the community center. They keep bees. There’s a group of residents who tend to them. That’s a summer activity, and they have a big setup.

Is it ever challenging to keep Wake Robin’s residents from getting bored?

Oh, yes. I have to really do a lot of work in listening to residents, getting ideas, hearing what’s being repeated, and then shaping it out.

That is a key part to this. I might grab a group of residents, or one resident who I know has some expertise in an area, so that they can help me to formulate a structure and a set of expectations for an activity. It’s important that it is high-level, that the conversations are sophisticated, that the dialogue is informative and challenging. And the residents really love the opportunity to have a Q&A with a presenter.

So, yeah, it is challenging, and a big part of my job is to make sure that those expectations are being met.

Is there anything you’d like to do, but haven’t been able to do thus far?

I would like to integrate more of my theater self and my experience. I think there is opportunity for that, and I’m continuing to figure out where and how to make that happen. I think the Moth storytelling workshop is a starting point.

Last year, I organized a two-night trip to Boston. I would like to figure out a way to get an annual overnight trip. It’s not easy to do. You’ve got to find somewhere that everyone wants to go.

We’re also under a big renovation and construction project right now. So, our fitness center is going to be renovated and made larger. I’m working with our therapy and rehabilitation department, they’re the ones that teach the wellness classes. I also help to put that together. I’d like to further develop the palette of what we offer in terms of wellness classes and fitness classes.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Read our most recent From the Front Lines interviews: 

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Written by Tim Regan

*Editor’s note: This article originally misstated the number of units at Wake Robin as 410. Wake Robin has 332 dwellings in total.

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