‘Today we are going to do some theatre improvisation.’
From the side of the room, I am watching a group of nine older people with dementia sitting in a circle with a facilitator. This is New York where I am observing an organisation providing arts activities for older people across the city. Blinking back my surprise at this direct approach, I watch the facilitator continue
‘Who knows what improvisation means?’
It occurs to me that most of this group may not have used that word much even before they developed dementia, that this activity might be just a stretch too far.
‘Pretending.’ is the reply from one of the men in the circle.
‘Yes, we are going to do some pretending’ repeats the facilitator.
‘Sounds stupid’ says Evadne, rolling her eyes.
But within minutes, Evadne is passing an imaginary red ball across the group and calling out her name as she does so, same with the rest. Next they are on their feet, exchanging names as they move about the group, clapping hands. Laughing as she returns to her seat, Evadne repeats
Then each person puts the name of a favourite place in New York City into a hat; the facilitator takes out one and reads out the name of a baseball stadium. She explains they are going to play a baseball game. Evadne becomes the pitcher, getting ready to throw the ball. Lifting her knee and turning in exactly the way I have seen them play baseball on TV, doing the ‘wind-up’ ready to throw the ball. Norman is the batter, swinging his imaginary bat in readiness for Evadne to windup and pitch. The rest of the group is divided into supporters of Norman, playing for the NY Giants, or Evadne, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The facilitator takes the role of the commentator, talking through the action with imaginary megaphone.
I am transfixed. They are all engaged. There is excitement, there is concentration, there is imagination, there is group coordination, there is physical movement. Nobody seems to worry that Evadne might fall or that Norman might whack someone with the imaginary baseball bat. At last, her face creased in concentration, she pulls up her knee in that bizarre baseball position which seems so foreign to our British eyes used to watching cricket. Evadne hurls the imaginary ball at Norman who whacks it right out of the imaginary stadium. The crowd go wild. Norman is thrilled, Evadne laughs and returns to her seat. Still smiling, still muttering to herself
As a reserved Brit, I watched with awe as this seemed to require a certain kind of extrovert drive. Whilst I could see that we might think such playfulness is ‘stupid’, we know in our hearts that it is essential at every age. Our own UK expert, John Killick, has written on Dementia and Playfulness so my initial response about British reserve is totally irrelevant. It is the skill and energy of the facilitator which makes the difference, not the country of origin. The joy of an international visit is that it allowed me to experience cultural differences in so many different ways, with so many nuances especially in the way that creativity was combined with everyday interests and cultural norms such as a baseball game.
If you can take a risk in the imaginary baseball game, you can take risks in other settings as well. In New York, I learnt to take risks in facilitating writing workshops with older people with dementia, that sometimes it might not work so well, some participants may say ‘it’s stupid’, others may take a nap or opt out of participation. However, we still need to tread the careful path of encouragement and enthusiasm. The outcome for participants can be increased energy, improved mood and greater communication which lasts long after the session ends.
As a creative writer looking for ways to use group-work with people with dementia, I can see how theatre improvisation could be written up, turned into a series of vignettes, could be filmed, could be used with puppets in slow time animation. However the process is as important as the outcome: activities providing creative expression are more than useful, they are vital. The activity gives people with dementia a role as actor, story maker, dramatist; a further acknowledgment of their contribution and creativity. With hundreds of students graduating from creative writing, arts and drama courses, why aren’t we training them to facilitate programmes of creative activities with people with dementia? It’s a perfect match: graduates needing employment and projects, people with dementia needing programmes of creative expression.
The theatre improvisation session closes with some music which the facilitator had recorded in response to the group’s previous discussion. Evadne gets to dance, really dance, her own moves reflecting her African American background, her love of blues, her love of movement. The facilitator asks each individual to shout out one word which describes how they feel at that moment. Evadne didn’t say that was stupid.
She just clapped her hands and shouted out ‘HAPPY.’
Evadne: dancer, philosopher, pitcher, actor, New Yorker, African American.