Update: Mnemonic Theatre Project

By     Dec 6, 2014
Creative Community Fellow

Josh Rice

 So...where to begin?  I was excited to get Sunny’s challenge to give an update on the project because I knew I would be finishing the latest version of The Mnemonic Theatre Project on 12/2, and after a few days of reflection, I’m ready.  I think.  Ready, in that all I am really left with are more questions.  Is one ever really finished with a project or community?  With this one, I don’t want to be, yet the ephemeral nature of theatre makes it difficult.  I’ll explain.

What a whirlwind it’s been.  After a crazy November in which I had a dental emergency, then traveled to New Orleans to perform my show in the NO Fringe Festival, I drove back to NYC, taught my class at Sarah Lawrence College, then drove right away upstate to Silver Lake, NY for Thanksgiving.  After a gluttonous time of food and family, I came back to NYC on 12/1, right in time for the final performance for the Memory Care patients on Tue 12/2.  The Memory Care unit at The Wartburg is where I’ve been lucky enough to find the community to work with with the Mnemonic Theatre Project.  Memory Care is the unit for seniors with Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (ADRD) who are in residence at Wartburg (an adult care facility in Mt, Vernon, NY).  It felt like I hadn’t seen them in weeks, which was true.  The last time I worked with them was a solo session on 11/14.  My volunteers, led by my lead assistant Storm, taught the workshop in my absence on Tue 11/18 while I was in New Orleans, then on Wed 11/26, I had to cancel due to inclement weather.  So I made sure to make up the time I missed on Tue 12/2.  I came in early in the morning around 10am to rehearse the piece with the seniors in preparation for the final performance later that afternoon at 2pm.

I was very nervous because I knew this "show" was not going to have the same production elements of the previous puppetry performance I did with Adult Day Care seniors at Wartburg last May.  There were going to be no animations or interactive projections.  No added fish puppets or props.  Instead, it was the group, their puppets, and me.  I was evaluating it’s success before it was finished.  But ultimately, that was more than enough.  

During the twelve weeks, I worked with a group of eight seniors in varying stages of ADRD.  Pearlyn, Virginia, George, Rosemarie, Wendy, Eileen, Jeanette, and Mary.  They are LOVELY people, and I grew to care for them very much.  Throughout the twelve weeks I made sure every time myself and my 3 volunteer assistants visited, that we made sure to re-introduce ourselves.  I don't know that it was necessary, but it was a tactic I employed.  (NOTE:  The Memory Care Unit at Wartburg has no established protocols or tactics for how Creative Aging Artists and volunteers should interact with Memory Care residents.  I was figuring it out on my own based on past experience and what I had read.  I relied on my training as a Teaching Artist and Improviser to really observe and listen when I was in the room with them, always taking the temperature of the room and going with what was resonating, changing the plan as necessary to accommodate the residents.)  Sometimes they seemed to recognize us.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes I couldn't tell if they were just feigning recognition and remembrance in order to feel better, or appear like they remembered.  And that became a taboo for me that I never figured out if it was an established taboo in the ADRD world, or if I was being too sensitive and made it a taboo: Can one talk about what the ADRD resident remembers or not?  Are they conscious of their state and where they are?  Would it be upsetting to remind them of that?  I was projecting this, yes, but I was never told one way or the other.  Every time I asked a Wartburg administrator about this, it was almost jokingly dismissed as, "well....they won't remember anyway."  That always upset me.  And is, I feel, reflective of how much the healthcare system still doesn't know about this disease.

During the twelve weeks my volunteers and I came once a week for 1.5 hours.  We started by introducing ourselves, the ideas behind puppetry, then what we wanted to accomplish in the process.  I showed them the prototype design and then we began building the puppets.  They sculpted the heads out of paper and tape, painted them, attached hair, shoulders, clothes, and ultimately, character on each puppet.  They were surprisingly adept at design and construction.  They loved it.



At the beginning of the process, I knew I needed to collect data, to see if there was any correlation between creativity and well-being in ADRD residents.  I tried, in earnest, to bring the Psychology dept. at Sarah Lawrence College on board to collect this data.  Ultimately, after pledging support, they provided little.  I would have to create the analytical model on my own based on already established systems.  Early on I tried a memory test experiment with them in which I quizzed them on their short term memory and current events before we engaged in creative activities and then again directly after.  I realized it was very upsetting to them to not "get it right."  I could tell they were struggling, and it seemed to lessen the positive effects of the artistic/creative process.  I realized soon after that to not try to be a psychologist.  I am not there to test them.  I am there to provide a creative outlet that brings them joy.  This was a big breakthrough early on that helped the rest of the rehearsal/design process throughout the twelve weeks. We were all there to play, have fellowship, and create community together.  And that's what I stuck with.  Play.  Everyone, no matter how old they are, just wants to play.  

After completing their puppets with my initial design, I realized they were having a very difficult time using their hand as the puppet's hand.  So, we changed the design, and actually built arms and hands for the puppets, and dressed them in actual child-size clothes as opposed to a more abstract piece of fabric.  This proved incredibly useful, and the residents responded so positively to that change, I was overwhelmed.  It finally clicked for them after seeing a more figurative representation of what we were building.


From then on, they were so easy to play and create with.  They were having fun, and really became attached to their puppet.  They gave them names, character, and voices.  They remembered them from week to week.  Or at least I think they did.  The recognition seemed so genuine to me.  And for my part, I suppose I could have been more diligent about asking them about that, but the last thing I wanted to do was drill them about what they actually remembered or not.  Instead, I followed the joy and tried to keep them in a playful state.  Anytime they would get confused, or frustrated, fatigued or angry (which was very rare), physical contact on the hand or arm, a smile, and easy tone of voice was helpful.  Speaking to them clearly and using repetition of instruction/direction always helped.  They seemed to really be enjoyed our visits, and I was loving it.

The structure of the culminating performance was a loose improvised one led by my puppet, Clive.


Clive acted as the emcee/director of our band of puppet performers, The Tape & Paper Puppet Players.  We, more or less, did a musical revue.  I knew that I couldn't give them anything scripted.  Instead, it was about reacting to prompts they could play with.  I also knew I could put certain "anchor points" in the structure we could always go back to that they would remember.  They all were musical.  Songs evoked a certain muscle memory for them that they knew every time.  I took it a step further and wrote a song with them, based on responses they gave to prompts.  It was a devised hip-hop song.  They loved it!  They got to be spontaneous and really show their personalities, and I think they had fun doing it.  And after a few previous sessions in which I freely played with and interviewed them and their puppets, they “knew” the drill.

  The format was as follows:

1.  Song: "The Sound of Music"

2.  Intros:

a) Hello, Hello, Hello (a la the 3 Stooges), then simple gestures of waving to audience and blowing them a kiss

b) Individual Senior/Puppet Intro: Josh/Clive introduces each participant and their puppet and sets them up with a question I knew they knew the answer to, or could answer easily.  I also showcased talents (ie. Jeanette and Dragon Lady singing Blue Moon; George and George singing Amazing Grace; Virginia and Baby doing some lines from Romeo and Juliet; Mary and Robert talking about her trip to Ireland; Rosemary talking about whether or not she likes her puppet Beauregard; Pearl and Sparkle talking about the holidays and food in her home country; Wendy talking about wine, traveling, and working in “management”; and Eileen and JP talking about traveling to Italy).  It went wonderfully. 

3.  Song: Jingle Bells

4.  Cool Dance party: to Sugar Hill Gang’s Apache (Jump on it).  We put our shades on and got “cool” to dance.  

5.  Rap: "Puppet’s Delight" a hip-hop song we devised together to the tune of "Rapper’s Delight"

6.  Final Wrap up/Reflection Interviews to each senior/puppet

7.  Song: "So Long, Farewell" from The Sound of Music


The final rehearsal the morning of the performance went wonderfully, and I felt so good about their success.  (NOTE:  The difference in working with them in the mornings versus the afternoons was palpable.  They were higher functioning and overall happier in the mornings.  In the afternoons, "sundowning" would occur.  Some of them would often be tired or frustrated.)  When we finished, I thanked them for letting me come in.  Then they were surprisingly effusive with praise.  George thanked me for coming to do it, and Virginia had a telling comment I will never forget: 

V: “Thank you, Baby.  If you weren’t here, we’d be waiting here like this...(and she sat back like she was comatose, then sat back up)...waiting for something to happen.”  Pearl and Jeanette both echoed that.  As did Wendy.  Did they remember me coming?  Or was it simply the fact that I was there that day, and reminded them of what we were working on these twelve weeks that they trusted it?  Did the physical representation of memory, the puppet, help anchor them?  Either way, it was illuminating, and I think a clue that the puppets really evoked a sense of memory for them.

The performance went so well.  I performed with them, guiding them in song, structure, and interviews throughout.  At one point while Virginia was doing her Romeo and Juliet moment, she moved in with her puppet, so I played along and moved in too.  She then pushed my puppet aside and kissed me on the lips.  I blushed.  It was a lovely trick she played on me in front of the audience.  Jeanette, who I discovered early on, was an opera singer, sang a beautiful aria with her puppet, Dragon Lady.  All in all, it was incredible how attentive and focused they were the entirety of the performance.  I was so happy for them, as they really were enjoying themselves in front of an audience.  They were so charming, playful, and funny.  You could really see their distinct senses of humor and personalities come to life.  They are incredible.


After the show, one of the Wartburg staff members remarked that she got to see their individual personalities, some for the first time.  She said she admitted some of them many years ago, and some of them didn’t even speak.  Some were angry (understandably so).   So, to see them come to life with such joy and humor and distinct personality really touched her. She was surprised and moved.  I was happy for them.  

It went so well in fact, that the Wartburg wants an encore performance on Sat 1/31, so they can invite the residents' family and friends.  That is fantastic!

A strange moment:  when the audience left, and after I gave each senior a rose for their hard work in performing, I started to clean up while the staff and audience dispersed, leaving the seniors sitting together, but alone, in their chairs, onstage.  That image evoked a deep sadness  I feel about the program’s end and Virginia’s comment earlier in the day.  I think some of them they know where they are.  The post-show let down was palpable based on their body language.  To know we brought a modicum of happiness and release to them is incredible, but at the same time, it’s ephemeral.  It’s the nature of theatre.  It’s a moment in time when the divine occurs on earth.  What those women and George did was nothing short of miraculous.  But also inherent in all of them.  That was them.  They are still functioning, creative, and INCREDIBLE people.  And to shortsight them as anything but fully functioning human beings capable of great love and creativity is a mistake.  That’s not to say this is happening, but there’s something about the care they are receiving that could be more nurturing in our healthcare system.  But what do I know?  So, seeing that image of them sitting there alone with each other, post-performance,  I couldn’t help but feel like I let them down.  I care about that community, but without the structured time to visit them and work with them every week, when will I see them again?  

This leads to a bigger question: How do I change this?   I am not their caregiver.  I am not their doctor/nurse.  I am there to bring joy and release and an outlet.  But the ephemeral nature of a simple 12-week program makes it seem meaningless in a way.  At least to me.     

In the end, when I'm hardest on myself, I ask "was it all for naught?"  Not when I look in their eyes and see the spark that is their true person.  Their expressed sentiments of joy.  Their smiles.  Their hugs.  Their puppet that they made.  And maybe that puppet helped to bring that out of them.  Maybe not.  

I can't wait for the encore performance.  In the meantime, I'll continue to evaluate.  I'll have a post-mortum with the Wartburg.  I'll put my pitch together for Palo Alto.  And after that, who knows?  All I know is living in the present with those residents was an absolute gift.