By STEVE PFARRER
Looking for some talented older actors who can play a wide range of roles? Who have decades of experience in theater, film and television?
Raye Birk and Candace Barrett Birk are at your service.
The Florence couple, relatively new transplants to the area — they moved here from Minneapolis in June of 2019 — came here, as some other older couples have done, to be closer to family, in this case their son, Joshua Birk, a professor of history at Smith College.
Now, after some delays caused by the pandemic, the Birks have been deepening their connections to Valley theater organizations, leading acting workshops, and working with the Northampton Senior Center to help promote a short film that examines healthy aging via the arts.
They know something about healthy aging. Raye is 80 and Candace 79, so they’re at an age when they could comfortably sit back, relax and contemplate their extensive resumes.
Indeed, their work on stage — acting and some directing — has included Shakespeare, Chekhov, Oscar Wilde and many other notable playwrights, while Raye has appeared in numerous films and nearly 150 TV shows, from the “The Naked Gun” movies, “A Serious Man,” and “Doc Hollywood” to “Cheers,” LA Law,” and “The Wonder Years.”
But as Candace Birk said during a recent interview in their home, staying involved in acting “is what feeds us. And teaching and coaching is what keeps us fresh.”
And though Raye Birk notes that it’s the first time the couple have lived in a rural community — “There’s not quite as much opportunity [for acting] here,” he said — his wife adds that they’ve found the Valley theater community “very welcoming … everyone we’ve met has been interested in us and supportive and enthusiastic.”
Given that, she added, “We’re trying to make opportunities.”
They’ve both appeared in productions in the last few years at Chester Theatre Company, Raye in “Curve of Departure” and “To the Moon and Back” and Candace in “Tiny Beautiful Things” and “Pride@Prejudice.”
And after leading a workshop last fall in how to prepare for an audition, Raye Birk will head an eight week, multi-class acting workshop at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, which begins Feb. 19.
The sessions will be devoted to what’s known as Scene Study, in which participants enact short scenes from a play, film or TV show, performing before an instructor and fellow students to hone their skills and get some constructive feedback.
Birk likens it to barre work in ballet: “It’s a foundation of acting, especially in what it can do in terms of your growth and development.”
His method is to pair students off for selected scenes, then let them work on their own for a stretch: “I’ll do what I can to help them get started, and they’ll work together and bring that back to perform in front of the whole class.”
The emphasis will also be on presenting a number of short scenes, rather than extended performances.
“I always say ‘Give me a well-rehearsed six minutes rather than an under-cooked 10 minutes,’” Birk said with a laugh.
Originally from the Midwest — Raye grew up in Michigan, Candace in Iowa — the couple met as undergraduates at Northwestern University outside Chicago and afterward married and attended graduate school in Minnesota.
They later moved to San Francisco to be part of the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), where professional development was a key part of the job.
“If you were in A.C.T., you taught,” said Candace Birk. “That was the philosophy.”
“Or you continued to study [acting],” added Raye Birk. “You took classes yourself. You didn’t stand still.”
Next came a move to Los Angeles, where Raye did much of his work as a character actor for TV and film. There weren’t as many opportunities for theater, the couple say, but teaching remained an important part of their lives, and Candace held a number of other positions, such as developing an art and theater program for a children’s cancer center.
The couple returned to Minnesota around 2008, living in the Twin Cities region, and they quickly got involved with the Guthrie Theater, a major performance venue and education center, and with smaller theaters in the region.
In the basement of their Florence home, a number of photos from their performances in the Twin Cities area are mounted on the upper walls, including some of Raye in a role he performed many, many times: Scrooge from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
“I know that part very well,” he chuckled.
Over the years, Candace Birk has also expanded her teaching to become a life/health coach, working with people who “are in transition,” as she puts it, making a life or career change or who “are stuck … They want to make a change but they’re not sure how.”
She also went back to school, at the University of Minnesota, in her sixties to get a degree in integrative medicine to deepen that work.
As well, the Birks discovered a link between theater and health that’s become an important part of their lives. They met Dr. Jon Hallberg, a professor in the University of Minnesota Medical School, who had created a one-hour show called the Hippocrates Cafe that examined serious healthcare topics through the lens of live arts.
As Raye Birk notes, Hallberg would gather two actors and two musicians (and sometimes writers) to consider a single subject — say, depression — through words, music and theater. The Birks performed many times in these sessions; in one case, they did a scene out of “Frankenstein” to examine the topic of organ replacement.
Hallberg staged well over 100 of these sessions, Raye Birk notes, which were presented in health clinics, assisted living centers, and other settings in the Twin Cities region.
“The idea was to keep elderly people engaged with the arts, whether as a viewer or a participant, as a means of staying healthy,” Birk said.
A public television station in the area then developed modified versions of the work, renamed “Art + Medicine,” that have since won an Emmy award and aired on PBS stations in some 25 states.
The Birks recently introduced and screened one of those programs at the Northampton Senior Center, where they’re regular visitors themselves. They both appear in the episode, with Candace reciting the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes” — an ode to celebrating having lived a full life — and Raye doing a short monologue from “King Lear.”
The Birks say they’re looking forward to doing more work along these lines, and to performing more theater in this area — opportunities that will depend on theater companies staging work with roles for older actors, Raye Birk notes.
“Younger actors can play older roles, but it’s pretty hard for older ones to do the younger parts,” he added. “But we’re pretty good at doing those older roles.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.