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Spinning yarns: Coney seniors tell tales of their lives at storytelling event

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They’re sharing short stories from long lives.

About a dozen Coney Island seniors told stories from their childhoods at a June 20 performance at the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses on Neptune Avenue to cap off a six-month storytelling workshop taught by a trio of borough bards. The event — entitled “Stories from Warbasse: True Stories Told by Brooklyn Seniors” — was meant to celebrate the power of storytelling and the importance of the community it cultivates, according to one of the instructors.

“We firmly believe that your stories are your legacy, and seniors especially need to be encouraged to share those stories with friends and family,” said Cyndi Freeman, a teacher at Stories of New York, an organization that helps borough seniors hone and tell the stories of their lives. “We’ve heard from seniors that it’s like a cure for loneliness — stories create community.”

Freeman and her partners, Sandi Marx and Terri Galvin — all of whom have performed on podcasts and at storytelling shows, including at the well-known live storytelling event the Moth — began working with seniors at the naturally occurring retirement community between W. Fifth and W. Sixth streets in weekly workshops in February to discuss how to craft the stories of their lives. For the first three months, the trio brought in guest storytellers who taught the seniors how to catch — and keep — the attention of their audiences while telling a short story, and prompted the seniors to think of how they could spin fragments of memory into engaging tales.

“They sort of organically learned what a good story that’s only five minutes long might look like,” Freeman said. “Guest artists would tell a story, and then we’d turn to the seniors and say, ‘so what does that remind you of in your own life?’ And we’d have this really engaging conversation of people going, ‘I remember what it was like to grow up in Brooklyn.’ ”

The seniors then began sharing and workshopping their own stories each week, learning how to decide which details to include and which to leave out, and how to form a narrative arc, Freeman said. The workshop culminated with the June finale, in which the seniors told poignant and funny tales of growing up in the New York City of yore.

Sophie Buchholtz told the story of her “entreprene­urial” grandmother, who earned enough money to buy herself a house in the middle of the Great Depression by renting out rooms in her Coney Island home to boarders after a fire ripped through part of the neighborhood. Francis Connors had the crowd giggling when she recalled her childhood dog eating her grandmother’s fake teeth. Sam Zilberweig recounted the manager of a “magical” Lower East Side movie theater granting him and his friends free admission for life after finding out that the youngsters could not afford tickets to the shows.

Freeman and the other coaches at Stories of New York have also worked with seniors at centers in Park Slope and Fort Greene, but this was their first time working with seniors in a naturally occurring retirement community — and they enjoyed it so much that they plan to continue working with the seniors of the Warbasse Houses on a volunteer basis, Freeman said, adding that the next workshop series will begin at the end of August, with performances slated for December.

The storytelling series was funded by the Jewish Association Serving the Aging, along with grants form the Brooklyn Arts Council and Su-Casa, a community arts engagement program that places artists at senior centers across the borough.

Reach reporter Julianne McShane at (718) 260–2523 or by e-mail at jmcshane@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @juliannemcshane.
Updated 1:34 am, July 10, 2018
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