Milwaukee Nursing Home Residents Bring Homer To Life In New Documentary

'Penelope: A Theatrical Oddyssey' Airs On Wisconsin Public Television On Friday Night

Above, a scene from "Penelope: A Theatrical Odyssey." Image courtesy of the Penelope Project.

The documentary “Penelope: A Theatrical Odyssey” follows nursing home residents in suburban Milwaukee as they put on an adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

Terry Bell conducted the following interview with Brad Lichtenstein, who produced and directed the film, and Anne Basting, who was involved with the production of the play.

Terry Bell: This must have been a real challenge on a lot of levels. For one thing, this was a production within a production, and it wasn’t originally envisioned as a documentary.

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Anne Basting: We knew we were trying something new by completely overhauling how you do things in long-term care. And we thought, “Let’s have a film crew follow us around (and we’ll produce) some learning modules.” And then at a certain point, we thought this is a much bigger story that we should be telling about the making of the piece itself, and what we’re learning as a whole, and that’s where Brad came in.

Brad Lichenstein: And once you realize you have characters and a story, then it changes what you’re doing. But I have to give a lot of credit to our amazing editor, Matt Lauderbach. He and I really pulled it out of the footage and tried to make a film out of this.

TB: Another challenge in making this movie is that you’re dealing with a lot of people with dementia, and other memory issues. And people are close to the end of their lives, and you even lost a couple of cast members along the way.

AB: I’d been working in long-term care using the arts for more than 20 years now. And the thing that I’ve seen too many times is, people give up, and they say it’s too hard, they won’t remember it, they’re going to pass away – let’s not do anything challenging or too deep. Because, why do that? And really (the point of) this project was, why not do that? Isn’t this exactly who we should be making meaningful art with?

BL: Just because you’re old, doesn’t mean you’re not filled with the same desire to make meaning with your life that you have when you’re 23 or 24. And guess what? You might even be a little bit better at it!

TB: Does being married to each other make working on a film easier, or harder?

BL: Both!

AB: Over the years, I think we’ve figured out pretty well what we can collaborate on, and what we can’t collaborate on. And there are definitely (times) when we just can’t “read each others’ writing.”

AB: I think it will be interesting to ask our children in about 30 years what it was like to grow up with us.

You can see more of Anne, Brad, and “Penelope: A Theatrical Odyssey” on Friday night on Wisconsin Public Television.