Magic Memories in the Making

Fri 21 Dec 2018

Now a frequent fixture in Curve’s programme of accessible performances, at 2:15pm, 3 Jan 2019, Curve will stage a Dementia Friendly Performance of Irving Berlin’s classic musical White Christmas. In this blog, Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster writes about his experience of directing the UK’s first ever Dementia Friendly Performance and the importance of making theatre accessible to all.

I was an Associate Director at West Yorkshire Playhouse (now Leeds Playhouse) directing Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, when we were invited to take part in the UK’s first Dementia Friendly Performance. The event was the brainchild of an inspirational practitioner working in the Playhouse’s education team, Nicky Taylor. We all marvelled as Nicky led us through this inaugural event with delicate skill, looking after actors, stage managers, lighting technicians, local councillors, care home managers and those whose lives are affected by dementia.

Nikolai Foster – photography by Ellie Kurttz

We learnt that adapting a production for a Dementia Friendly Performance is relatively straight forward, whilst making a huge difference to the lives of those attending. Adaptations to the performance included adjustments to the sound (reducing extreme or especially loud sound effects), lighting (including leaving the house lights at a low level throughout the performance) and a more flexible seating plan in the auditorium, so folk have a bit more space to move about. In my experience, it is the front of house teams which do the really hard work, adding extra signage to the public areas, creating safe/relaxed spaces, adding extra signage and dealing with folk with complex needs. The Dementia Friendly Performance brings all teams together, everybody working closely.

My memory of the day was one of being profoundly moved and trying not to burst into tears at various points throughout the performance. The space felt incredibly charged and there was an enormous feeling of love between the stage and throughout the auditorium. The audience were having a great time – feeling welcome, relaxed, safe and free to express themselves however they wished. The actors, band and stage management team could feel this spirit and the deal was sealed: Magic. Theatre. Camaraderie. That unique connection between stage and auditorium.

Emma Williams, Danny Mac, Dan Burton and Monique Young in White Christmas – photography by Catherine Ashmore

After the show, the actors bounded into the house to meet the audience. The sense of gratitude and mutual respect was palpable, and, as well as seeing great lives lived and experiences in many old eyes, there was an overwhelming sense of pride and appreciation. From our point of view, the Dementia Friendly Performance was easy, it took little effort, but what it meant to those leaving care homes and feeling part of their community, in some cases, for the first time in decades, was immense.

The experience reignited my understanding of theatre’s role within society and how it constantly surprises and offers completely new horizons.

When I was appointed Artistic Director at Curve, I was keen to share my Leeds Playhouse experience with audiences in Leicester. Chief Executive Chris Stafford shared this enthusiasm and the idea that to be truly great, theatre needs to be accessible to all. We invited Nicky down to Leicester and she set to work, training our team, scoping the building and advising us on what we needed to do. Our 2015 Christmas production of Lionel Bart’s Oliver! marked the second Dementia Friendly Performance in the UK and a first for Curve. Like at the Playhouse, the Curve staff got right behind the project and we were inundated with volunteers, all curious and keen to help out. The atmosphere in the theatre on the day and throughout the venue was electric and the sense of communion was deeply felt by all.

The company of White Christmas – photography by Catherine Ashmore

Since Oliver!, Curve has staged Dementia Friendly Performances for all of our Christmas musicals and major productions across the year. 3,000 people have attended a dementia friendly performance of one of our Made at Curve productions like Fiddler on the Roof, An Officer and a Gentleman the Musical and Scrooge. These performances bring people together, make everybody taking part feel valued and remarkable, normalise dementia, creating a safe space for those living with the illness and their carers to relax and enjoy a show. There is no fear of being judged or made to feel “other”.

As an added detail, we serve cups of tea to patrons at their seat. Again, this doesn’t require much effort, but means such a lot to those living with Dementia, their family and carers.

The Dementia Friendly performances work best when there is a healthy mix of older patrons and school groups / young folk. It’s great to see the generations mixing, learning about each other and interacting in ways they would never do outside the theatre.

Our Dementia Friendly performance of White Christmas will take place on Thursday 3 Jan at 2:15pm. Local firm Pukka Pies sponsored our Dementia Friendly performance of Scrooge last year. Food at half time and after the show only added to the relaxed spirit and sense of community. Nothing connects folk like juicy pie fillings tumbling down your Christmas jumper! We are thrilled Pukka Pies are sponsoring the White Christmas Dementia Friendly performance and we are incredibly grateful to them for their continued support and that they recognised what an important performance this is.

White Christmas – photography by Pamela Raith

Like all of the other Dementia Friendly performances taking place in theatres up and down the country, lives will be quietly changed and young and old will learn a bit more about each other. Memories will be created and remembered for many generations to come.

Caps off to Nicky Taylor. An incredible lady, who started a revolution of compassion and accessibility; no mean feat in such challenging times.

This article originally appeared in Age UK Leicestershire and Rutland’s EngAGE magazine.