Seniors and The Road – NoHo Home Companions

Some people retire from the theater. But others can now retire to the theater. The new NoHo Senior Arts Colony is a housing development that also includes a professional working theater on the premises.

The Colony — at 10747 Magnolia Boulevard — is currently accepting its first live-in artists and arts aficionados, age 62 or older. They’ll share their creative talents and interests with each other and with the public.

Among the amenities of the complex, besides its one- and two-bedroom apartments, are three courtyards, a swimming pool, large balconies, and exercise equipment — features that aren’t unusual for a new housing complex where the market-rate rents run from $1,750 to $2,340 a month.

John Huskey. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

But this complex also will offer studios for painting, sculpture, and other visual arts; a quiet library for writers; film editing facilities; classrooms and lecture halls for teachers, writers, and visiting artists — in addition to free art and yoga classes for residents. And 20% of its units are offered at below-market rates to lower-income renters. Those subsidized units are already filled, and a wait list for vacancies for those units has begun, “but it’s not likely that they will be available any time soon,” says the complex developer, John Huskey.

The piece de resistance, and the element that appears to make the NoHo Senior Arts Colony unique, is the 78-seat professional theater that is built into the complex.  Staffed by the Road Theatre as its second space (its other space is at the Lankershim Arts Center, also in NoHo), the resident company will incorporate Colony residents as actors and crew, depending upon their backgrounds, training, and capabilities.

“We began planning this project five years ago, along with the Community Redevelopment Agency, which no longer exists,” says Taylor Gilbert, founding artistic director of the Road. “There were a number of theater companies that applied to be part of the Colony, but we were chosen by the community developer, Meta Housing Corporation, to be the on-site professional company.

The complex was funded in part by the CRA, which bought the land and leased it back to the developer at a lower than market rate, explains Huskey, the president and CEO of Meta Housing. The CRA also provided $800,000 for the addition of the theater.  Then Meta utilized a tax credit provision that is available to housing projects that offer some 20% of their units at a subsidized rate.

Taylor Gilbert

“From the beginning, the Road Company wanted to be in the Valley,” Gilbert notes.  “It offered spaces we could afford, and it was a different environment from all the little theaters in Hollywood.  We started out in a warehouse behind the Burbank Airport and moved on to a warehouse in Van Nuys before we became part of the Lankershim Arts Center in 1996.

“North Hollywood is such a supportive community,” she adds, “and it’s been so exciting to see how its arts component has grown.”  She points out that Road’s membership has also grown — from its original 22 members it now numbers some 120 designers, actors, and playwrights.

“The new space will allow us to expand our season and present alternate productions,” she continues.  “And better yet, our hits can run longer because we won’t have to shut them down to set up our next production.  It will also give our actors more opportunity to work and to give back to the community.”

As for the larger NoHo Senior Arts Colony, “we hope to be the most attractive nuisance around,” Huskey says.

“It did my heart good to watch this place develop,” says Linda Castle-Davie, one of the first tenants in the new complex.  “This part of Magnolia Boulevard was a real eyesore and this space was an ugly vacant lot.  I lived a block away for 14 years and I watched this place being built.”

The new buildings have already begun to gentrify the area.  “People around are whitewashing their property, and the little shopping area down the street has done away with their hand-lettered signs and put up a commercial sign that covers the whole mall,” Castle-Davie notes.

Linda Castle-Davie. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

In addition to acting, Castle-Davie has toured the world as a vocal artist, performing in venues as diverse as Germany and Scotland. At her new home, “I will get to act again—and sing!” she exults.

Huskey has been building senior housing since 1969 — he will soon turn 65. And he is fixated on what makes for successful living conditions, “what separates the good from the great.” He has come to the conclusion that it is the inter-activities between people that change their lives.

“It’s changed my life, too,” he adds.

He points to a set of guidelines that governs the activities of the senior housing projects he has developed.  “First, there is ‘the Norm factor,’” he says.  “Remember in ‘Cheers’ how every time Norm came into the bar, ‘everybody knew his name’ and called out ‘Hi, Norm’?  Well, that works in senior housing projects, too.”

The second element is education, “relearning things you already know but were resistant to,” he says.  Teachers who have offered classes to his senior residents say they “feel safe” with their students because they and the students “are there because they want to be.”

He talks about a writing assignment, in a class at one of his earlier senior housing developments, in which students were charged with writing autobiographically.  “They lost all their tension,” he notes, “and worked with incredible energy because they were not writing dry, but confronting what’s real.”

In another writing group, it turned out that a number of the students were from Boyle Heights, so they decided to return to that community and make a movie about the visit.  They eventually produced a 12-minute black and white short that was shown at the Skirball Cultural Center to great acclaim.

“Activities that require cooperation are the most successful,” Huskey says.

Burbank Senior Artists Colony

At the Burbank Senior Artists Colony he established in 2005, the residents developed an informal theater group, “a Mickey and Judy sort of affair,” he says, and began doing radio shows.  The show, “Experience Talks,” is now broadcast on KPFK and will soon be syndicated nationally.

Huskey jokes that the activities involve “letting the inmates manage the asylum” and that sometimes it is “like herding cats,”  but working together “makes people healthier, helps them to live longer, and raises their self-reported level of happiness.”

To prove the point, Huskey invited an academic review group from USC to monitor a control group from a senior housing project that didn’t incorporate all the activities that he had initiated.  He says the review validated his premise.

“It provides something new and different,” he says. “The residents are not couch potatoes and the environment is not sterile.  It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.”

He also notes that, even though the living arrangements are gracious, “people don’t spend as much time in their apartments.  They’re out engaging in activities.”

Coming up next: the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony, a low-income residential facility containing 126 units on three floors.

And finally, Huskey explains his company name, Meta.  It means, he says, “turning point” in Latin, “deeper, beyond” in Greek, and “loving compassion” in Sanskrit.  All the things he hopes to provide for his NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Stage Times, published Dec. 11, 2012


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