Our class were lucky enough to work with Laura Harling, founder and Artistic Director of The Dot Collective, a theatre company and charity whose aim is to bring innovative, professional theatre to the community and residents in care environments. They specifically provide stimulating and uniting experiences for those living with Dementia. Theatre in the Community is occasionally, unfairly assumed to be of a lesser standard, but in discussions we discovered how valuable it to accommodate specific communities.
We were nervous to approach this sensitive topic which sadly touches so many lives. It was essential to begin the process by gaining a thorough understanding of the specific needs of our audiences. With Laura’s guidance, we began to understand how Dementia affects a person’s cognition and memory. We tried some exercises to recognise how distressing and isolating it can be when thought, articulation and conversation are jarred by a delay in processing. This helped us to realise the potentials of the project and create new audience expectations - mostly that anything can and should be allowed to happen! While this seemed daunting at first, it became hugely freeing and emphasised the reason we were training to be an actor. Not for an Oscar, but for the chance to inspire a feeling that might endure, even when memories become more transient and fragile. It helped us to become actors who respect and respond in the moment.
In terms of the devising process, I have to say we were floundering at the start. Being given the Snow Queen was both a blessing and a curse - seven different stories, all to fit within half an hour - easy, just Dr Seuss-ify Hans Christian Andersen and add a couple of musical numbers. We got ruthless cut stories, cut characters, and slimmed it down. We added a heartfelt rendition of Barbie Girl. Built a flying Snow Queen puppet. Learned to maypole dance. And all with Laura’s stories in the back of our minds to be prepared for our audiences to get very bored and leave, heckle, or enjoy it so much they decide to join in. In actual fact, we were fairly uninterrupted in performance, excluding two carers we roped in as the maypole and a robber (who took her role very seriously and would definitely be welcome on tour!). On the whole, although loud, we took this as a positive because the residents were engaged and felt comfortable to join in, enjoying the world being created around and in front of them without needing to actively enter it.
At the beginning we were assigned different production roles, from Stage Manager to Choreographer to Musical Director, which was a brilliant part of the process as it gave us an insight into another responsibility. It also meant the show felt truly ours - completely devised, designed and produced by the company. Hearing lines we wrote get laughs, choreographing to songs we adapted, building a minimal but effective lighting rig and set we could get in and get out under time pressure, hearing a gasp as the Snow Queen puppet rose for the first time, as Laura puts it, “Going as far as we can with what we’ve got.” There is nothing that gives you more of a creative nudge than watching your work do something for someone.
One of the most nerve-wracking parts was the meet and greet as the audience was getting settled. We were aware of not being patronising to people who have had more life experience than all of us put together. It became easier the more we relaxed into very natural conversations. The carers and residents were wonderful, intelligent and funny, many with fascinating stories from their lives and careers, and their appreciation and excitement for us being there was infectious!
When we kicked off our first performance in Chiswick with a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, I noticed one corner of the room getting quite loud for a few minutes afterwards. But when I tuned into it properly, I realised it was one of the residents we had met prior to the performance. We were aware he had very reduced mobility and had struggled to articulate himself more than introductions, but here he was, singing along. This was the first of many moments during the show where I wished I could’ve stepped back from what we were doing and just watched the audience at the same time.
The carers of our audience informed us of the changes they had noticed, the difference of how they were listening and joining in during the performance compared to on a day-to-day basis or in other activities. It was something they rarely see and hoped similar events could be arranged. Just as Laura had described this in-the-moment improvement of people’s quality of life being the incentive to set up The Dot Collective, it was a rewarding experience like no other.
Many thanks to Laura for all her insight and direction, we cannot wait to see their new projects in the New Year.
By Tessa Chalmers, BA (Hons) in Professional Acting