Jan Michener, founder of Arts Holding Hands and Hearts
By Kerigan Butt
Jan Michener is the founder of Arts Holding Hands and Hearts, Inc. (AH-HAH), and has worked with all ages in theater education for several decades. She facilitates interactive theater, playwriting, and life writing workshops with senior citizens and students from fourth to twelfth grades throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Since 2005, she has led a weekly Living History Storytelling Project at the Kennett Area Senior Center. She also started an intergenerational project called Hands Across the Ages, in which seniors from the Kennett Senior Center and teens from Kennett High School met to share stories and build community.
Q: Much of your professional life seems to involve uniting the generations -- younger and older. What is the best result when these groups work together?
A: The best result is stereotypes are dissolved and each group sees each other as people who are unique and also see how we are all connected. We become a family.
Q: Do you see similar energy and creativity in young playwrights/actors and senior participants?
A: The seniors I work with approach life with eyes of wisdom and also willingness to see with fresh eyes and to be constant learners. To create, one must be willing to see with eyes of wonder and with openness and non-judgment. I learn something every day when I work with seniors. They fill me with AHA moments.
Q: What are some common themes that emerge from working with these groups?
A: Each group is different and the themes emerge from what is important to them. Last year at the Kennett Area Senior Center, the theme that emerged was "You Are Never Too Old." The theme in Philadelphia with the Hands Across the Ages group with seniors from the Philadelphia Senior Center and teenagers from World Communications Charter School was "Bullying in School" and the impact of art to make a difference. We need more art education, not more guards with guns.
Q: What has kept the Living History Storytelling Project so vital at the Kennett Square Senior Center?
A: We are in our eighth year of a ten-week program. I joke that when I said ten weeks, the universe heard "ten years." This is a most incredible group. We have our pioneers who have been with the group since its inception, and each year and month, new members join us. We share stories, sing songs (even if we can't remember the words and we are off-key) that the stories make us remember. Sometimes we even get up and do a dance or do the dance in our chairs. We laugh, we cry, we touch each other's hearts. There is no judgment, no right or wrong, just being witness to each other's stories and seeing how we are all connected. The seniors tell me how much the program means to them, but they are my teachers, and I leave the center each week feeling so much joy in my heart and with a huge smile on my face that carries over until the next week.
Q: What's your favorite place in Kennett Square?
A: Oh, there are so many. Kennett Square has changed so much in the last eight years. I love the farmers' market on Fridays in the summertime. I go to all the restaurants and all the shops. I can't pick a favorite. Each one of the stores is special because the people that work there are all so special.
Q: Who would your ideal dinner guests be (living or dead), and why?
A: I would invite Lucille Ball, Gilda Radner, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Ghandi, Studs Terkel, and Dolly Madison. They each bring a unique perspective and I want to hear their stories. I would ask them what was their "pause button" when life seemed to get out of control, and what brought them the most joy. I also think there would be both laughter and deep conversation around the dinner table
Q: What food is always in your regrigerator?
A: Sriracha (a hot sauce named after a coastal city in Eastern Thailand), and a special sauce I make with mayo, ketchup, dill pickle juice, and sriracha.
-- John Chambless