BRATTLEBORO—Sandglass Theater is exploring the rich creative potential of people with late-stage dementia.
On March 22 and 23 at 7:30 p.m. at the New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, the Putney-based theater company presents “D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks.”
Set to a compelling original score by Paul Dedell, striking animated video segments by Michel Moyse, lighting design by Sabrina Hamilton, and sound by Finn Campman, the work will be performed with five puppets portraying Alzheimer’s patients residing in a senior care facility, and by three puppeteers — Eric Bass, Ines Zeller Bass, and Kirk Murphy — who are their caregivers.
“D-Generation” is based on stories written collaboratively by groups of people with late-stage dementia. Performers from Sandglass Theater gathered these stories, which often are associative and non-linear, during 20 visits to senior care facilities. There, small circles of people with dementia were guided through a collective story-making method called TimeSlips.
Developed in 1996 by Anne Basting, TimeSlips invites people with dementia to express themselves and connect with others through the open, poetic language of improvisational storytelling. The history of this technique is described at www.timeslips.org.
Murphy explained that TimeSlips and Sandglass came together because of the daughter of Renya Larson. One of Sandglass’s board members, Larson worked at Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute, whose mission is to improve long-term care by improving the jobs of home health aides, certified nurse aides, and personal care attendants.
She noticed correlations in the works of Sandglass and TimeSlips, and soon both institutions were working together to form a theatrical piece. Later, funding changed and other nonprofits such as Vermont Council for the Aging got involved to support Sandglass’s endeavor.
“At senior centers, we would show a picture to group of elders and then ask a series of leading questions, ones in which there were no right or wrong answers,” Murphy said. “We would then write down every word they answered.”
They would then conjoin every one of their answers to create a narrative. “What resulted was a story strangely poetic, unusual, and evocative.”
Using the TimeSlips method to engage people with mid- to late-stage dementia, what the performers from Sandglass discovered was that Alzheimer’s patients’ stories revealed humor and playfulness, as well as the dark reality of the disease, and that these tales could stand on their own as dramatic material from a remarkable source.
Director Roberto Solomon and Sandglass Co-Artistic Director Eric Bass used the stories elders created as the basis of a theatrical piece, combining the tales with the compelling process that went into writing them.
As Solomon and Bass describe it, “D-Generation” tells the story of a series of patients in a senior care facility, and we watch the storytelling process of TimeSlips. Then two of the stories, with the collaboration of Brattleboro video artist Moyse, are reenacted in toy theater, a form of miniature theater using a two dimensional stage that dates back to the early 19th century in Europe.
In this powerful piece, which examines the world of dementia, Solomon and Bass say that “D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks” reflects both the stigma and the acceptance, the despair and the joy, that is equally present and possible, in both the person with dementia and in their caregivers and family members.
Murphy does not think the ideal audience of “D-Generation” would be those with dementia themselves. “With their problems with cognition I am not sure what they would get from it. I consider our ideal audience as someone in the caregiving community, or ones who have had contact with someone with dementia.”
As well as other theatrical venues and festivals, Sandglass is negotiating to bring “D-Generation” to health care providers and organizations.
“D-Generation” was Sandglass’s hit production at last fall’s Puppets in the Green Mountains festival (www.puppetsinthegreenmountains.com). Nonetheless, Sandglass spent January reworking the production with Solomon. The performances at NEYT are a preview for a national tour that will open at Theater Grottesco in Santa Fe, N.M., in April.
The reworking of the production and the development of the national tour were made possible by a National Theater Project grant administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts, with lead funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
“Reworking D-Generation was a delicate task in that we didn’t want to change anything fundamental; we wanted to answer some of the questions that the piece posed, perhaps not directly, but by implication,” Bass said. “We needed to find the missing voices in certain moments, and give them presence.
“When we talk of voices, we don’t necessarily mean words. We remain a theater that writes through images and movement, so those ‘voices’ might be a moment of stillness, or a moment of frenzy that were lacking in the rhythm of the piece. Someone who saw the piece last September might not feel a great difference now, but yet they might. Subtle changes can sometimes shift the balance of a work dramatically.”
Sandglass is no stranger to touring its productions, but the NTP grant enables the company to develop new horizons.
As Bass explained, “The National Theater Project award is one of the most significant recognitions Sandglass has ever received. It was very competitive. Winning it puts us in the company of some of the most interesting ensemble theater companies in the country. It brings us to the table of some discussions that get to the real substance of what kind of theater we want to make and why.
“In addition, the award will certainly help to open some doors for us, to make it possible for us to play in some parts of the country where we have never been. The NTP grant also provides us with professional resources that are invaluable: experts in theater criticism, production, and booking that can really help Sandglass grow and help all of us in D-Generation expand as artists,” Bass said.