A puppetry project for those living with dementia

Wednesday 1 August 2018 – Final Session – Thinking in Pictures

By Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples

After five glorious weeks, it’s hard to believe that our sessions with the guests of the Age UK Wood Street Centre have come to an end. It’s difficult to put into words the impact this experience has had on us and we’ve been honoured to get to know these people so well. David, a brilliant photographer we’ve had working with us on this project, said to me that in almost every picture he’s taken, I’m grinning from ear to ear. To be honest, that’s no surprise at all. You can’t help but smile about this group, they really are infectious!

It’s been an interesting journey for us, learning about what the group respond to and covering everything from puppet making, music, dancing, drawing, writing and singing. In this week’s session, we wanted to make sure that the participants had a clear concept of the film that we are going to be making out of their stories. Whilst we work with shadow puppetry and shadow puppet films on a regular basis, generally, it’s not always commonly understood what we mean by this. It’s really important to us that even now these sessions have finished, they don’t disconnect with the work and know that the film we make has come fully, from them. So, we showed the groups one of the previous shadow puppetry films we have worked on, Eider Falls by Lake Tahoe, a music video for Kate Bush. We also then showed them Hansel and Gretel by Lotte Reiniger, who is a huge inspiration to us. This really helped to outline how we might translate some of the participants’ stories and experience into a shadow film.

A common factor in our puppetry and in particular, shadow puppetry is the ability to think in pictures and to think about how the pictures communicate meaning. This is something that the participants have shown a real interest and skill in across the sessions, with a strong connection to storytelling, as mentioned in previous blogs. We have found that their interest in more abstract concepts, however, is limited but thinking in pictures that tell a story has really grabbed their attention. In this week’s session, we worked with the group on creatively storyboarding a tale that we made up from scratch. Drawing each slide of the storyboard encouraged the participants to think about what the spectator was seeing in each moment and how we needed to either add slides in to make things clearer or we could also take slides away, to allow for a more abstract intervention. We noticed that this started to help the group grasp new ideas and that as the reliance on everything making sense or everything being connected was reduced, they were able to be more creative with the exercises. This is very similar to the process we will undertake when storyboarding the film and in order to incorporate a little piece of everyone in the group, we’ll have to reach towards the abstract, at times.

Over the past five weeks, I’ve really noticed the importance of expression within the group. At times, Dementia seems to be hugely frustrating, infuriating even, however, finding new ways for the group to express themselves has been key to the positivity and joy found in every step of this project so far. It seems to me that our group are often bound by the expectation to recall, remember, speak and move in a connected way, however, we’ve explored a number of different expressions with them. Working with puppetry, dance, creative writing, music and dance have all been outlets of expression for the participants, allowing them to let their personalities and stories shine through and gosh have they shone brightly!

The next stage for us is a key one and it’s certainly going to be a challenge to capture the essence of the incredible people in our little film. However, the thoughts of their smiling faces is enough charge for any person.

It’s not goodbye forever to Wood Street but goodbye for now and we can’t wait to go back to show them the final film. I can tell you now, I won’t be watching it, I’ll be watching their faces!

Shadow Play Blog Post 2

Blog Post 2

By Molly from Smoking Apples

Wednesday 11 July 2018 – Session 2

It’s probably no surprise that our group at Age UK in Tunbridge Wells have the most incredible stories. But having a story and wanting to tell it are two very different things. Part of Hattie’s job and mine, therefore, is to get to know the participants in the group and, if they’re comfortable, hope that they will share some of their stories with us.

Luckily for us, we had no need to worry and blimey, what a session it was! We were truly amazed at the detail, depth and emotion of the stories that we were told, both the ones that came out through the facilitated parts of the session but also our chats with the participants over lunch and coffee throughout the day. In our generation of social media, smartphones and the internet, we still tell stories, but in a very different way. It’s instant and the segments of stories are delivered immediately so you rarely see the overview of a story; rather, you hear about each bit of it, as it happens. Our participants, in this group, are the letter-writing generation, and the care and attention they take in describing things visually is just magical. In the space of three hours we covered everything from marrying a sailor (even though your mother told you not to!), playing in bands, watching jazz at Preservation Hall in New Orleans and dancing on the Pantiles for Empire Day.


As Hattie mentioned in her blog last week (see below), the participants have a strong connection to music and many of the stories we heard this week were closely related to music. The way in which the participants described their stories was also incredible. The heart and humour of the retelling is key and something we hope to include in the film. There’s also a real sense of joy working with this group and again, alongside the music, this seems to be emerging as another strong connector for them. The group regularly refer to feeling joyful or remember the times from their stories as joyful, and it’s interesting for us to observe that these are the moments that are most fixed in their memories.

 So both storytelling and music are coming forward as key factors in this process so far as they really allow for the participants to engage with what we are doing. We’ve also been working with them to further unlock their imaginations and not fixate so much on what actually happened, as this can sometimes cause frustration, particularly when things are difficult to recall. We spent some time listening to different types of music and creatively drawing a response to it on paper, and also trying to match music with a series of pictures and images, encouraging the participants to make the connection between music and visuals.

 The stories from the group, imagined or otherwise, are so captivating and we’re now thinking of ways to incorporate them into the film alongside the shadow puppetry. Next week, we’d like to try to record some of the stories from the participants and work with the idea that they could be used as audio to accompany some puppetry visuals. Their voices, and the way in which they tell these stories, are paramount, and we absolutely adore listening to them. Fingers crossed the audience will too!