Seniors Are Alive and Well in Seattle’s Theater World

December 1, 2023 at 7:58 p.m.
Maureen Hawkins and Gordon Coffey in "Strong Waters"
Maureen Hawkins and Gordon Coffey in "Strong Waters"

Strong Waters, a new play by Claire Zaslove, was written with “actors of a certain age” in mind.

After years of work and the notable interruption of a global pandemic, the play is set to open on January 13, 2024 at the 12th Avenue Arts studio in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The idea sparked to life back in the summer of 2018. “Maureen Hawkins and Gordon Coffey came to visit my husband, director Arne Zaslove,” says playwright Claire. “They had worked on a show as director and actor, and now they wanted to find a project together to do as actors.”

Playwright Claire Zaslove


The challenge was to find a play with two good roles for older actors. Senior roles are so few, especially when two are looking to get cast together. Maureen and Gordon hoped to find a story that explored topics that weren’t typically covered. “Old people are stereotyped,” notes Maureen. “We didn’t like the plays we read.”

Maureen, Gordon and Arne kept flipping through scripts. “Our trio started looking for other options, but were having some difficulty, so I joined in the hunt,” says Claire. “I Googled two-hander plays for mature actors and, let me tell you, there’s not a lot out there.” She found some with the description ‘two seniors in a retirement home reminisce about their lives,’ but rejected that premise. “I knew from observing my own parents that these years can be ones of great passion and promise.” She had an idea.

“Maybe I could write you a little something,” she offered. “I suppose they figured they had nothing to lose – either I would come up with something or I wouldn’t,” reflects Claire.

The first step was interviewing Maureen and Gordon. She asked them: What are your concerns? Interests? Fears? Joys? What’s important to you?

“We talked about what we thought was important; what an older audience would identify with,” says Maureen. They were looking to explore some of the challenges that seniors face at this stage of life: loss of physical ability, loss of loved ones, evolving relationships with grown children, remorse, regret, sexuality, reconciliation.

Armed with two pages of notes from the interview, Claire went off to mull them over.

During the next nine months she worked on a play that involved four middle-class, middle-aged characters having a dinner party on a houseboat, which felt to her like a fun and original setting. She envisioned sparkling, witty conversation, contemporary issues explored, relationships transformed.

“The trouble was, I couldn’t get any of the characters to talk to me,” reveals Claire. “Half a page of dialogue ideas, and then... silence.”

Was it back to only two characters? “It’s a rule of playwriting that adding a third character adds more dimension and depth to a dramatic situation,” says Claire, “so I decided to add a multigenerational angle and write in a younger character as well.”

Then, in the spring of 2019, Claire’s husband, Arne, got a job directing a play and was away for five weeks. “Lo and behold,” exclaims Claire, “I started to hear the characters in this play talking, and I would drop whatever I was doing to write down snatches of their dialogue. After a while, I said, ‘Okay, if you guys are going to keep talking to me, I guess you get to have the houseboat setting.”

By the end of the five weeks that her husband was away, Claire had a draft of what she called The Houseboat Play.

“When Arne was back, we gathered the cast in our studio and read through it together,” says Claire. The cast now included not only Maureen and Gordon, but Bob De Dea as the younger character.
The actors sat down with the manuscript, never having seen it before. “We read it cold,” says Maureen. “When we finished, our collective response was, ‘Wow.’ We were just transported.”

(left to right) Maureen Hawkins, Bob De Dea, Gordon Coffey


“There was already a lot of their creative DNA in the piece from insights and personal experiences they had shared with me,” adds Claire. “After their comments on the reading, I revised the play to incorporate some deeper explorations, and then we read the second draft together.”That draft stuck, and was renamed Strong Waters, a reference to various beverages consumed in each of the play’s four scenes, but also apt for the churning emotions under this particular houseboat.

The play was poised for production... until the pandemic struck.

“None of us wanted to let go of these characters,” says Maureen of that time during the pandemic. But the shutdown did offer the leisure of exploring the play, the backstory. “It’s pretty amazing and unique to have this character living on your shoulder for all these years. There is always more you can understand with time.”

“As we emerged last September, Arne directed a staged reading of Strong Waters at Crown Hill Arts Center,” says Claire. “This allowed the cast to go deeper in their explorations.” Arne was assisted by a longtime colleague, Margaret VandenBerghe, who took over the directing reins.

Claire recalls, “Our audience for the staged reading laughed—to our great delight—and were moved. We hope our audiences in January will have the same experience.”

With the success of the staged reading, the search was on for a venue for the production. After a year, they selected the studio space at 12th Avenue Arts in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Maureen notes that she, Gordon and Bob are members of Actors Equity, the professional actor’s union, and are mounting the production as a self-produced ‘Equity Members Project’ under the company name of Theatre for Grownups. They are all veterans in the theater world; seasoned theatergoers have probably seen them on stage at places like Seattle Rep, ACT, Intiman, Village Theatre, and 5th Avenue.

“We are a little troupe of determined old-timers,” says Maureen. “Claire and Bob are in their 60s, Margaret VandenBerghe (our current director) and I are in our 70s, and Gordon and Arne are in their 80s.”

Claire can’t say enough about the actors. “They are extraordinary... I get to say that, as they would be too modest. And part of their achievement is that, even though I know ‘how it all turns out,’ they still manage to surprise me with the emotional twists and turns they navigate through the piece.”

Strong Waters runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. The show should have a broad appeal to intergenerational audiences but may especially resonate with seniors. The venue has a drop-off directly in front, it is fully accessible and wheelchair friendly.

"Strong Waters" plays at Seattle’s 12th Avenue Arts beginning January 13th 


Strong Waters: A retired actor and his recently divorced son share a tranquil life in a floating home community until an unexpected guest arrives, destined to make waves. The past is awakened and the present enlivened, as three people discover where their hidden hurts and their hope for healing collide.
  • Strong Waters runs January 13 through February 4
  • 12th Avenue Arts is located at 1620 12th Avenue in Seattle
  • Evening performances begin at 7:30pm; 2pm matinees are offered on January 14, 17, 21, 24, 28, 31 and February 4.
  • Tickets are $25 for general admission, or $20 for seniors and students. If there are seats available, the venue offers “Pay What You Will” on the day of the performance.
  • A link to purchase tickets can be found at: Strong Waters | globalworks (

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