Shadow Play Blog

Shadow Play – the premiere

By Justine Rutland

Thursday 11 October 2018

One rainy October evening, supporters, staff, volunteers, participants, funders and friends made their way to Age UK Tunbridge Wells, eager and curious to see the culmination of the Shadow Play project. Very few audience members knew quite what to expect, just as, months before, those of us directly involved – the festival, Age UK and Smoking Apples theatre company – were unsure as to how this pioneering project, which aimed to engage people living with dementia to recall stories and memories through shadow puppetry, would turn out.

It was lovely to be reunited with many of the participants, who we hadn’t seen since the creative sessions way back in the summer heatwave. Everyone mingled and chatted. There were introductions from Joanna (Age UK), Molly (Smoking Apples) and Linda (Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival). And then the lights were dimmed.

Left to right: Joanna Marks – Age UK, Molly Freeman – Smoking Apples, Matt Lloyd – Smoking Apples, Linda Lewis – Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival

Shadow Play is a funny, compassionate part- documentary film that immortalises some of the stories of the wonderful folk of Age UK, cleverly weaving them together to make a whole narrative by using the bookcase analogy so useful when understanding the impact of dementia on the brain. The audience was inspired and moved, and we hope you will be too.

Last Thursday may have seen the completion of the Shadow Play project, but through the film it lives on. We hope it’s only the first chapter of a long story.

Here are some tweets and comments from attendees:

“Everyone connected with the film had obviously researched the project. It was sensitive and inclusive.”

“Excellent and wonderful to those who suffer with dementia enjoyed life during a difficult transition of their lives.”

“It was approached with sensitivity and compassion. Everyone seemed to have a very positive and enthusiastic disposition which was extremely uplifting for the clients.”

Blog Post 1

By Hattie from Smoking Apples

Wednesday 4 July 2018 – Session 1

When Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival approached us about delivering this project, we were very excited to take part. I have worked with the wiser generation before and found it to be some of the most rewarding work to do. There is a tendency to forget and patronise anyone over 70 as they grew up in a world very different from the one we know. However, making art with them is an inspiring experience, so we are grateful to have this opportunity to share our skills with a group of adults living with dementia.

Our first session was a chance for us to get to know each other and find out the strengths of the group. We were met with some excellent senses of humour; while going around the group and introducing ourselves, one participant told us we should address him as ‘Your Majesty’, which made everyone laugh. After a warm-up and some ice-breaker games, we soon discovered a shared love of music within the group. This manifested itself in various ways. There were a lot of smiles and laughter, brilliant dance moves, and even some people singing along. It is such a joy for us to be able to begin new friendships with these bold and bright individuals. Although it is a fairly large group of 20 with a lot of different tastes to accommodate, we did find that music brought everyone together.

Our aim for this project is to work with the participants to create a story that we will then tell in a short shadow puppet film. As we will be using puppetry in the final performance, we introduced the group to some different ways of using it. Some participants took to puppetry immediately, by making the puppet look around and wave, but it was not as universally popular as the music. Perhaps this is because in some forms of dementia it can be very difficult to clearly perceive the world around you – for example, a person living with dementia might see a black carpet on the floor as a hole in the ground. With puppetry, our aim is to allow the audience to believe an object to be a living, breathing being, but it could be difficult to accept this idea if your brain is constantly confusing you as to what is and isn’t real. Furthermore, dementia can make it very difficult to focus on one thing and not become distracted, so the dual task of both puppeteering and watching what you are doing could be part of the problem.

During this session, we started to get to know the participants and hear some of their stories. We even wrote a group story together at the end (which gave our resident comedians a chance to put in some more puns). Although we are going to the centre to lead workshops, we are learning a great deal from the participants and staff – for example, that the food there is great, and that New Orleans is the best place for jazz. We are also learning a great deal about the needs of the group. In particular, I would like to highlight the importance of identity for those taking part. It is clear that it is really important to everyone to be given the time and space to contribute without us finishing their sentences for them or cutting them off because the silence feels too long. By giving each person a safe space to talk, we allow them to be the individual people they are, with individual tastes and experiences, and to remove some of the  fear of losing their autonomy. By actively listening and responding to each person’s contribution, we show them the love and respect that they deserve.

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!

Blog Post 3

By Hattie from Smoking Apples

Wednesday 18 July 2018 – Session 3

We decided to challenge ourselves this week and introduce a craft-making element to the session. As the film we produce at the end of this project will include a story told through shadow puppetry, we thought it would be interesting to share some of our process with the group and guide them in making their own shadow puppets.

Everyone did get involved this week, which was a delight to see; even those who previously have been reluctant to join in took part in every activity. When planning for each week, we have never been quite sure whether the participants will recognise us or remember why we are there, but this week it felt as if there is more to it than that. When we are in the session, we make every effort to give each person an enjoyable experience. We try to find some way to connect with their individual interests and talents – even if that is just taking the time to listen to their stories over lunch, it seems to make a positive impact on their mood. We are learning not to ask them to recall memories but instead to open up the space for them so that they can tell us their memories if they want to. By varying the activity, we find that different stories come up; for example, this week, while drawing the shadow puppets, we discovered one of the participants used to be a theatre-set designer.

Within the group there is a huge range of motor skills; some people were able to cut out each piece of the template, draw around the pieces on card and cut them out again without difficulty. At the other end of the scale, some participants fully understood the task, but were unable to manipulate their hands to perform it. Others were able to cut out templates, or draw around shapes; however, they struggled to understand how the instructions and the objects related to each other. The frustration of this was clearly visible; before their dementia, they would have been able to do it in ten minutes, whereas now it takes two hours. While it is normal to feel sad about this, it is not helpful for us to feel sorry for them and grieve their lack of mobility. Unfortunately, dementia is degenerative and there is no known cure. What we can do, and what we aim to do, is to find ways for everyone to get something out of the session. For the person who takes the whole morning to complete the first step, we celebrate what they have completed, we thank them for taking part and we invite them to join us in the next activity. If they are unhappy or frustrated, it is also important for us to acknowledge this, and to allow for a break or a change of activity. We aim to help them feel good about what they are doing.

When we did the first stage of dementia-awareness training with Dementia Friends, we were given an analogy which I have found very helpful. Imagine a bookshelf being rocked back and forth. Our recent memories are the topmost books and our oldest memories are at the bottom. As the bookcase shakes, the most recent memories fall off first and eventually only the oldest ones are left. In this analogy, there is a second bookshelf, which is sturdy, heavy and harder to shake – this contains emotional memories.

We have a person-centred approach to the sessions. Our main aim is to give the participants good emotional memories so that at the end of the day, even if they don’t remember why, or what they did, they feel good, or know that they have felt good that day. We do of course have artistic hopes for this project – we want to make a beautiful documentary and film – but the experience our participants have is far more important.

Blog Post 4

By Luke Breen

Wednesday 25 July 2018 – Session 4

A month or so ago, Smoking Apples asked me to be a part of a project working with people living with dementia. Dementia is something that has affected my life personally, so I didn’t think twice about saying yes. My late Grandad developed Alzheimer’s when I was ten or eleven years old, and so I know and have experienced all too well how devastating this disease is for those affected and their families. So, I was looking forward to giving some of my time to (hopefully) getting the participants in Shadow Play singing, dancing and smiling.

The session started with the group completing the shadow puppets that they had begun the previous week with Hattie and Molly. I plonked myself between two of the adults. The bulk of the task was to attach the four rods to the puppets with gaffer tape, then have a go at puppeteering the shadow man or woman. One of the participants excelled in this – she showed great skill and understanding, especially when it came to manipulating the puppet. (I later found out that she used to be a theatre designer!) Another participant needed some extra help and guidance, particularly when picking up the rods, as she struggles to use her hands. As previously mentioned by Hattie and Molly, fine motor abilities differ greatly among the group; some are skilled at drawing, and have no issue manipulating the materials, whereas others require a large amount of assistance.

When my Grandad was in care, he could immediately recall moments in his life that made him smile when music was played to him. Music can reach parts of the brain in ways that other forms of communication cannot. How to listen and receive sound is one of the first functions we develop as a baby, so it is no wonder that the clearest memories for people living with dementia often have some relationship with music. Hattie and I are both musicians and had been told that the group love music, so we thought that this week would be a great opportunity to get everyone up, active and singing along. I knew from the moment I brought my guitar into the room that this would be fun because several of the group announced how excited they were at the prospect of hearing some live music.

I played and Hattie sang. Hound Dog was a particular favourite of theirs as well as Blue Suede Shoes. The Beatles also made an appearance or two on the request list. Often, I would just play chords with a strong rock’n’roll beat and that would be enough to encourage movement and dance. One lady in particular loved to dance and came up to me to say, ‘Never stop moving – you have to move. You must learn to dance; it is wonderful for you.’ She told me later that she used to win lots of ballroom dancing awards alongside her husband, who also made the stages for them to dance on. As a way of involving the members of the group who weren’t confident at getting up and dancing, I brought along a pair of drums. I think that music will be a key feature in the final piece. We were told that the Wood Street centre will be getting a piano this coming Friday, so hopefully some of our group will be willing to play us a tune next week!

I wanted to leave the session having hopefully made a positive impact on their day and I think we did. We were fortunately able to collect some more stories for the piece and learn a little more about the music they enjoyed. But above all that, we were able to give some of our time to listen, to be patient, and connect with them as people – I really enjoyed it. Looking forward to next Wednesday.

Blog Post 5

By Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples

Wednesday 1 August 2018 – Final Session – Thinking in Pictures

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!