A Tender Thing by Ben Power Produced by United Players of Vancouver, runs Sept 6-29, 2019 Directed by Sarah Rodgers pictured Denyse Wilson (Juliet) and Troy Skog (Romeo) photo by Nancy Caldwell
A Tender Thing by Ben Power;
Produced by United Players of Vancouver, runs Sept 6-29, 2019;
Directed by Sarah Rodgers;
pictured Denyse Wilson (Juliet) and Troy Skog (Romeo);
photo by Nancy Caldwell

post by Scott DeJong

Allowing individuals with dementia or age-related memory loss to continue to perform on stage is Dr. Julia Henderson’s objective, where she is introducing accessible frameworks to make it possible.  Joining with ACT as a Post-Doc, Henderson’s work tackles relationships between age studies, dramaturgy, and accessibility, fitting well within the research goals of ACT. In her excitement to join us, Henderson kindly talked with us about her work, and upcoming initiatives with ACT.

Her interests started years ago when she worked simultaneously as an occupational therapist and actor, unconsciously starting to connect the two worlds at the same time. Eventually her interest in both brought her to academia where she explored how age is presented within current productions and social imaginary.

Henderson explores how age studies can connect to theatre, looking at performativity and decline narratives along the life course. She states that “the decline narrative, our social understanding of the decline narrative kind of maps directly onto the most common dramatic or story structure that we understand in the west. There is some kind of initial incident, and then there is rising action, complications to a climax and then a really rapid denouement, and then resolution, Which is so similar to the life course, We sort of launch in our early teenage years and in adult hood our life gets gradually better overall to some point around midlife or slightly after and then there is a rapid decline. I think that is really interesting to think about, how that story structure influences our understanding of age, and how playing around with story structure can have a profound influence on how we understand age and older age.”

While subversive structures exist to challenge this norm, building from performativity, Henderson believes that our performativity of age should also be challenged.  These decline narratives portray a consistent negative perspective of age, specifically around conditions of dementia and age-related memory loss. Historically, these conditions have been presented in a negative light, “constructed in the media, drama and fictionalized stories, as this monster that is overtaking someone, that is stripping them of their identity and is just wholly negative” an idea of “gothic horror”. Recently, there has been a profusion of theatrical plays that discuss age-related memory loss, but only a small amount invites actors with these conditions to perform. This is where Henderson’s work with ACT will focus.

In her post-doc, she wants to develop public performances with community members and professional actors who are experiencing dementia or age-related memory loss. This objective is not easy, and the limited work done in this area provides a unique challenge that Henderson is excited to take on. For her, “The big challenge is there are all kinds of traditions of making theatre that are pretty steeped in cultural expectations and ways of working that have just been happening for a long time. So to shift what people expect, or the way people do things is often, takes a lot of care, encouragement and a lot of work.” Henderson needs to find ways to tear down these current theatre cultures to make them accessible for these actors, because “so much of theatre is premised on the idea of memorization. Typically, actors memorize their lines, memorize their blocking (where they move on stage). So traditional theatre requires the actors to be able to memorize at a very level. Even breaking down that idea that there are other ways to do this is a really positive and big step”.

[Dementia’s] also not just wholly negative. People still have an identity; they still have an identity connected to the people around them”

While theatres are starting to make some changes in this direction with relaxed performances (in which the lighting and sound design might be toned down, the house is lit, people are welcome to move around, talking is acceptable etc.),  Henderson wants to go further. This requires creative solutions. With some ideas in mind like earpieces to read lines, improvised poetry or storytelling, and shorter rehearsal days (from 8 hours to 5), she also recognizes that each actor will have unique needs that will be adapted to: “[Dementia’s] also not just wholly negative. People still have an identity; they still have an identity connected to the people around them.” Highlighting the role of identity is an integral consideration to Henderson. In developing these ensemble pieces, she will draw from the strength of each participant, shedding a positive light on dementia and age-related memory loss. She asks, “how can we develop strategies to work around that, how can we highlight people’s individual strengths, and how can we think about assistance across the life course. Not just how people with dementia require assistance, but how they can be giving assistance, and how might we at other points in our life require assistance. I’m interested in incorporating ways that we can draw on creativity, musicality, or social skills or other enduring qualities that people with dementia have.”

Highlighting how individuals with conditions horrified by the media can continue to express their personhood and connection to the world around them is an invaluable part of this work. Henderson points out that literature already discusses how music, art and theatre can be extremely beneficial for people with these challenges. Her work compliments this and moves dementia from a medicalized and pathologized space to a more positive perspective for the public.

Her excitement to join ACT is palpable, and her creative and academic thoughts are already flowing as she jumps into the project. While the results will be immeasurable, Henderson keeps one objective at the front of her mind— “I think more broadly than individual wellbeing, I am also really interested in how we might influence society’s perceptions of ageing, older age, or specifically dementia or age-related memory loss. How might we shift this perceptions away from this idea of gothic horror to something that highlights the redeeming aspects of the condition or the positive qualities that people maintain or develop when they experience dementia.”