Sometimes, like undiscovered treasures, brilliant facets of a person’s inner character remain hidden and surface only with opportunity presented by change. So it was with Margo Prentice, who’d never dreamed of being an actress when she left her family home in Winnipeg at age 19 and jumped on a westbound bus. And certainly not after she met her future husband in Vancouver, married and moved to Prince George to raise her family of four: two boys and two girls.
But in the late 1970s, working her way through the turmoil of a broken marriage, Margo needed a new interest, a creative outlet to keep her mind positive.
“It was that or therapy,” Margo laughs. “I enjoy learning new things, so I signed up with a theatre group, the New Caledonia Players, as a volunteer.”
It was a decision that dramatically changed her life. Margo planned to work as an usher, wardrobe assistant or wherever she was needed, but she’d barely hung up her coat when the director called her on stage. He wanted her to try out for a part in a play. It was a scream. Literally. That was it - just a scream, but Margo was delighted. She got the part, and with her kids in the aisles keeping themselves busy with colouring books when she couldn’t get a babysitter, she played the part of a crazy woman in a play about the French Revolution.
Multi-talented and with natural flair, Margo took to acting like a New Age Sarah Bernhardt. She loved to play different character roles and was surprised to find she could memorize lines with ease. Born to French-speaking parents, English was Margo’s second language. There were no ESL teachers during her school years, so she spent many hours memorizing English. “It was difficult at the time, but it was excellent memory-retention training,” she says.
For the next five years she immersed herself in learning stagecraft, taking the theatre arts program at the College of New Caledonia, acting in many plays with the Prince George Theatre Workshop and touring with the New Caledonia Players to the smaller communities of northern B.C., acting, singing and dancing. Margo loved it. “Bringing theatre to small communities, some of which were out in the boonies, was exciting and a great learning experience,” she says.
In 1987, Margo moved to Vancouver. Again, she signed up for acting classes and auditioned, but found that although there were more theatre productions in the Lower Mainland, the competition for acting parts was fierce.
“There were so many good actresses auditioning for the small number of parts being cast.” Margo explains. “And my face didn’t fit. I was too old for most parts, and my face was too young to play old woman characters.”
Undaunted, Margo tried her hand at movie scriptwriting, and co-wrote a play. At the same time, she became an activist who sang with the Raging Grannies, a social action group of women aged 50 to over 80 (not all grannies). These women of different religious, ethic and cultural traditions, used satire, street theatre and the irascible old lady stereotype image - feisty, independent older women, rather than sweet little old ladies - to affect social change and raise awareness on such issues as women’s rights, world peace, social justice, environmental protection and racism.
It was Vancouver’s loss and New Westminster’s gain when, in 1997, Margo moved to the Royal City. Sociable, with an irrepressible smile and outgoing, generous nature, she quickly made friends. Not only did she sign up as a member of Century House, a centre that provides leisure services for its 2,000 senior members, but volunteered her talents in numerous capacities.
Her passion for live theatre undiminished, she performed with New Westminster’s Edmonds Players in Alice in Wonderland and happily reprised the role of Gryphon, the same character she had played over 35 years ago in Prince George - delighting in performing for her grandchildren the same role she had performed for her own children when they were small. Versatile, she played numerous character roles, participated in a melodrama at Century House, and directed short skits for seniors.
Choreographed by Margo, out of a Century House drama class morphed a hilarious and hugely successful production, The Old Spice Girls.
“It was so much fun,” she recalls. “We dressed in outrageous, skimpy costumes and lip-synched songs by the young and glamorous pop group, The Spice Girls.” Performing for different groups at Century House, Burnaby Village Museum and even opening for a rock concert at Massey Theatre, the group brought laughter wherever they went. Only when requests to perform grew too numerous to handle did the group wrap up the show.
Joy lit Margo’s life again when she met and married Tom. But it didn’t slow her down. In 2003/04, she served as president of Century House Association. And, ever an activist for causes she believes in, lent her voice and support to the Rainforest Raging Grannies, a group of ladies who celebrate the environment in song. But it was in 2005, responding to a fast-growing interest in live theatre at Century House, that Margo found her niche. She started the Golden Age Theatre Group.
It was an instant, amazing success. Participation was the preferred teaching method: seniors, some as “young” as 90, who had never had the courage to appear on stage before, signed up. “I was so shy,” says Regina Ledger, who had never acted before and is now one of the stars of Golden Age. “Margo pulled me out of that. She is so funny and has such patience and talent she has made actors out of people that you would think are impossible to train.”
Writing, producing and directing plays for seniors by seniors presents challenges. There are no long runs, as many performers don’t like to go out at night. Most shows are held Friday nights, followed by a Saturday matinee; and rehearsals are twice a week, during the day. Without a real stage, the group is obliged to perform in a gymnasium without the benefit of sound or lighting. And there are health issues to work around like hearing problems, hip replacements and arthritic knees. Margo, whose current goal is to become a stand-up comic, directs with humour, never knowing if she’ll be acting as stand-in for one of the parts or ironing costumes for a production.
Margo’s interest in the arts and community spirit is endless - her enthusiasm contagious. She has served on the city’s Seniors Advisory Council, and is co-chair of the annual Seniors Festival; she works to support communication programs between youth and seniors; finds time to facilitate a monthly Parkinson’s support group and, since successfully completing the Playwright program at Douglas College, leads a senior’s creative writing group at Century House. Master of Ceremonies for the past two years at the Royal City Book Festival, Margo welcomes writers, encouraging them in the performance of public readings - many for their first time.
This year, Margo received a nomination for New Westminster’s prestigious Bernie Legge Cultural Award. Heidi Mueller, who runs the Back Door Theatre Room, endorses the nomination. “The Golden Age Theatre Group is part of a fast-growing cultural phenomenon that is senior theatre. Many of the senior participants are discovering or re-discovering the creativity and joy of theatre. The benefits to health and spirits are priceless. Margo has given and continues to give appreciation of theatre to the seniors and entire community of New Westminster.”
Ever growing into the treasure trove of her talent, Margo made her debut into comedy at Lafflines Comedy Club in June. But, whether she’s performing for fun or fundraising, reading for radio, miming, or mentoring her grandchildren, Margo’s love of theatre and the arts will continue to inspire, entertain and encourage the people around her.
JULY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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