Dementia leaves a sound engineer facing a new reality in The Ties That Bind, a new piece of theatre devised by Newcastle’s Skimstone Arts, based on research by Edinburgh University. We talked to Artistic Director, Claire Webster Saaremets about putting this affecting, but uplifting, piece together.
First of all, tell us about the research on which the show is based…
It is based on a research project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, held by Professor Charlotte Clarke and Heather Wilkinson, and in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation and Alzheimer Scotland. The research’s focus is on those living with dementia who have encountered changes or access to their social groupings.
At what stage did you become involved?
The University and Professor Clarke have already commissioned Skimstone Arts to produce a successful national touring piece of theatre – Jack and Jill & The Red Postbox – and two internationally screened films – Jack and Jill and Michael’s Map. It’s a strong partnership that balances the health and well-being agenda of living well with dementia and our passion for making interesting and more radical and contemporary multi-disciplinary theatre and film work, inspired by real stories.
How did the university go about collecting these personal stories?
I was fortunate enough to work with Charlotte and her team in Plymouth at a gathering of people in their 50s and 60s living with early onset dementia and was able to observe and interact with how independent and “connected” they were… Yet is this the case for the majority of people across the UK, especially in rural communities?
Julie Watson on the team also helped us to consider the sensory changes that someone would be experiencing alongside memory loss, so that our plot and characterisation was true to real life events.
How did you set about translating these experiences into performance?
It came about as a response to the research finding that people experiencing early onset dementia were being “rejected” from social groupings. In other words, interest groups or friends were “dropping away” or in some cases, asking people not to come any more as they were “a risk”. What started the creative process was for us to map out who we are connected to and why (loved ones, family members, friends, neighbours, interest partners, people running local amenities etc.) What forms a relationship or tie to someone? And how do these bonds remain strong when someone experiences a strong change in who they are, as often happens with dementia? As our creative process involves a multi disciplinary approach, we also looked at metaphors and symbols of “ties” and “bonds”. This helped to generate imagery and sound ideas which later would be woven into the structure of the work.
We then decided not to go down the expected route of exploring more deeply the relationship of partners / husband and wife. We focused instead on a sibling relationship and explored our own and others’ “ties” to the complexity of shared family history and how this would be affected by the stories we had read in the research. I was especially grateful to Gez Casey, Literary Manager at Live Theatre for his insightful input around the dramaturgy and his own experiences of his father who lived with dementia.
And tell us about Paul – what shaped him as the central figure in the piece?
Paul became a critical protagonist to explore a different and more original way of how music (research has also shown the power of music to unlock memories) featured in his life.
It was critical for us to consider how someone could continue to work – or when was the point to retire and find new ways of living and socialising positively? What would happen to the ties he had at work? The additional research stories we collected included a teacher who had parked in the wrong place at work, forgotten to go to classes and blanked in one such class. This and one or two others were the inspiration for how Paul’s world would shift when he struggles with the responsibility of running a busy studio. How and why does this change happen and what replaces that network?
I then explore the multi disciplinary elements of sound and image to represent Paul’s world, for example movement sequences and motifs around blanking. We created new visuals to suggest possibilities of fading within memory loss, and how someone would move when spatial perception is affected.
Our original compositions enabled us to look a wide variety of genres that Paul would have produced and how these will remain with him as part of his journey. We have songs, sound pieces, music compositions, all representing his relationship to the people and places he is connected to.
What struck you most strongly about the experiences you were dealing with?
The individual nature of living with dementia and how there are positives as well as challenges to early onset dementia. Research stories told of people becoming more “loving” and how the ties of loved ones could change for the better. For example – a father that was always working now had valuable time to spend with his three daughters. We wanted this balance to be reflected in the story.
The sensory experiences were an interesting challenge as we wanted to delve deeply into what it means to be “overloaded” with flashing images, or the “world to shift” when spatial awareness is eroded. Is this the same for everyone? We experimented with sound loops and played with visuals where a part is gradually fading or missing or distorted.
What have you learnt from the process of developing the show?
We’ve learned about how ideas need to continue developing. We began the first version with the “Voice of Dementia” as a character. This allowed us to work with metaphors around how dementia would affect Paul’s world. However, the piece needed to portray stronger ties that were tangible as well as metaphorical – as referenced in the research. So we have worked on a two-hander as the theatre form to tell the story of how two siblings are affected by the diagnosis and how their worlds shift to create new beginnings and new ties, just like those positive stories that we heard about. We learned to create the presence of characters through multi role dramatisation, voice overs and visuals which we hope gives a sense to The Ties That Bind in Paul’s world.