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Forget Your Lines

Memory Ensemble and Lookingglass Theatre use improv to help Alzheimer’s patients

By Nancy Maes

Physicians encourage Alzheimer’s patients to stay intellectually stimulated and socially connected, but when they are no longer working and have trouble attending their favorite leisure-time book club or volunteer activity, they have a hard time following the doctor’s orders.

An improvisational theatre class called The Memory Ensemble, developed by the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Lookingglass Theatre Company, fills that gap.

“The program was created to offer individuals diagnosed in the early stages of the disease something that is mentally engaging and stimulating and challenges them to use their minds in a new way with other people who understand what they’re going through,” says Mary O’Hara, a social worker at the center who cofacilitates the sessions. “Feedback suggests that the sessions are contributing to feelings of confidence and success and empowerment of the participants.”

Improvisational techniques are a good match for participants because they emphasize spontaneity and living in the moment. Christine Mary Dunford, a member of Lookingglass Theatre Company who co-founded. The Memory Ensemble, says, “Improv doesn’t require participants to remember anything from one session to the next and allows them to focus on being creative, which they are very good at.”

At the beginning of the 90-minute class, participants are asked to name a color that describes their emotional state and explain why they chose it. They repeat the exercise at the end.

“Most often, the color [that] people choose, and the reasons they give for choosing it, change at the end of the session in a positive way,” says Dunford, who always looks forward to the mornings when The Memory Ensemble meets. “I enjoy spending time with them because they are so [much] fun to be with,” she says. “They express sadness and regret sometimes, but mostly, they have a sense of joy and a profound gratitude because they are focused on living every day.”

For a stage production she directs at Lookingglass Theatre, Dunford adapted Lisa Genova’s book Still Alice, about a professor named Alice who is diagnosed with Early-Onset Alzheimer’s.

“I think the play is a conversation about living with memory loss, and so is The Memory Ensemble,” she says. “But the play is also indirectly inviting us to ask questions about identity, about the loss of identity and what makes up our identity.”

Dunford, who has degrees in theatre, performance studies and cultural anthropology, continues: “We reconstruct our identities from moment to moment, and I believe that people with Alzheimer’s always have an identity. They will become a person who doesn’t remember things, or who falls down because they can’t judge distance, but they also become a person who can paint and sing and can hold someone’s hand and connect with others well into the disease.”

The Memory Ensemble lets participants find a comfortable place to be who they are. Still Alice reveals the changes in the life of a career woman, wife and mother with Alzheimer’s, who struggles with the repercussions that her ever-increasing forgetfulness has on her work and her relationships. Panel discussions with Alzheimer’s specialists after performances of the play shed light on many of the issues raised by the disease.

The Memory Ensemble will begin a new six-week session in late May. For information, call 312-503-0604.

Still Alice runs through May 19 with panel discussions about Alzheimer’s after certain performances. It is free and open to the public, April 28–May 18 at Lookingglass Theatre Company located at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. For tickets, call 312-337-0665 or visit lookinglasstheatre.org.

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