Dementia and immersive theatre, connecting through the senses

I recently got to combine my interest in immersive theatres and dementia research at a series of events organised by Spare Tyre theatre company, for their new performance The Garden, which has been specially designed for people living with dementia. I first came across the company in a book by Nicola Shaughnessy that referred to their immersive theatre work with people living with dementia. Naturally I was intrigued, as this was something I became interested in during my Ph.D. research, thinking about how creating immersive installations and using the senses in theatre, might have particular benefits in applied settings, including for people living with dementia.

Spare Tyre’s new performance, The Garden, is described as “a multisensory, interactive installation and performance for people with dementia and their carers. Bringing the outdoors in, it grows organically as different stories unfold using puppets, music and digital art”. Spare Tyre often work with disadvantaged and marginalised groups of people, so it perhaps of little surprise that people living with dementia are of focus in this latest work. I headed down to the New Diorama Theatre in London to find out what it was all about…


20160303_190622 Waiting with notebook in hand for the talk to begin.

My three days of immersive theatres and dementia began by attending a talk on the evening of March 3rd on “The Arts & Dementia: Reminiscence or the present?”. I had expected more of a spat if I’m honest: sometimes it seems that there is a lot of disagreement between the two camps of interest in whether reminiscence or presence approaches are ‘best’ for people living with dementia. Instead, we were treated to a number of delightful insights by respected and knowledgeable minds such as: David Savil (artistic director of Age Exchange); Molly Breton who is Access Manager at the Royal Academy and manages their education programme; Bisakha Sarker’s work with Chaturangan in Liverpool; Arti Prashar, artistic director of Spare Tyre and Dominic  Campbell, co-founder of Creative Aging International.

Of note was their honesty in sharing past failures, recognising the ‘parachuting in’ of artists not in residence 24/7, and the difficulties for care staff who are often on low pay for their intense labour. The big take away from the session for me was that for some people reminiscence is very effective and that’s ok, and for some people an ‘in the moment’ approach is more appropriate, and that’s ok too. If we are to genuinely be ‘person-centred’ (the term coined by Tom Kitwood and now often used), our arts practices should be responsive, varied and tailored, and inevitably, this takes time to get to know the person and their preferences. David, in particular, felt that, by the third week of running an activity, that’s when you are starting to get to know the people you are meeting and working with, and it is important to always work in a responsive way to the individual.


Arti’s comments at the talk that, at the essence of any creative practice  ‘it’s about basic human connection’ can be extended to anyone working with dementia. She stated she had been surprised how many care staff had expressed to her that they didn’t know how to communicate with a person who has dementia. It was these observations that led her to develop The Garden – a multisensory installation that takes a group of up to 8 people with dementia and their carers on a short journey through the seasons, that lasts up to an hour including coming into and leaving the performance. I’d prefer not to spoil the performance for you here, like all immersive theatres it’s one that is best encountered through your own experience, and, having attended the performance twice whilst I was in London (at an open public performance on Friday 5th March and as part of the workshop on the 6th March), I can tell you that there were a number of differences in what I saw, touched, smelt, tasted, and heard.

Using largely non-verbal communication allowed for different forms of interaction to emerge. This is important when working with people living with dementia, especially for those in the advanced stages of the disease who may have difficulties communicating verbally. The company use a mixture of live and pre-recorded sound, large screen projection and small (that can be projected onto the skin), natural objects such as water, earth, leaves and flowers, and recreate snow, wind, cold and sun. Some of the sensory elements are all in the imagination: I caught the smell of the fabric softener from my childhood that my mum used to use, as one of the performers folded sheets and took a deep inhalation of their scent, one instance of the sensory nature of memory. There are some unexpected surprises too which I won’t spoil for you, but, nevertheless, caused a lot of laughter and wonder in the room.


A few of the items that populate The Garden.



The final part of my time in London was as part of a masterclass on Saturday 5th. A small number of people (mostly women, I note), came together to share and learn about working creatively with people living with dementia.We were a mixed bag: care staff, theatre-makers, dancers, therapists, students, or researchers, or hybrids of several roles. Together, we had the opportunity to think how we might use the senses or change our way of being to better incorporate people living with dementia into and as part of the activities that we do (from getting up in the morning to going to bed at night). The potential of the multi-sensory approach used in The Garden is to offer multiple points of connection that might work with different people on different levels. As Arti commented, it isn’t about getting someone to be cognisant for the full performance, but perhaps they will have 10 or 30 seconds where you are able to meet with the person and share a moment together, that however small, is still cause for doing this type of work.


Below: raised sensory images used by Spare Tyre. 


Above: Prepatory thoughts at the start of the masterclass.


The overall workshops, talk and performance confirmed in my mind some of the things I had considered in my Ph.D. thesis: that working through the senses in a particular way might harness a therapeutic potential for people living with dementia. I’m looking forward to exploring some of these ideas further in the future and developing my sensory performance practice to be able to mirror, connect and sense people in the moment through theatre.

With thanks to Spare Tyre, especially Arti Prashar, for opening up their practice and process, and for all the speakers at “The Arts & Dementia: Reminiscence or the present?” talk, for sharing so openly about their experience and practice.

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What no-one can tell you about post PhD…

The run up to handing in was rather stressful: a week before I was due to submit I heard a horror story of a viva experience from a good friend and colleague that sent me into a mini-meltdown. I realised I had to ignore it to get on with the task at hand. I did. And I immediately got a cold! (I was warned this might happen!)

Afterwards I had a break for a few weeks and then started reading a few book chapters on the viva, getting tips from the fabulous #phdchat thread on Twitter and asking friends and colleagues who had been through the experience. When people say that you can’t prepare for a viva it really is true. Equally valid is that I don’t think you can prepare for post-viva also. This is how it went for me:

Two months ago I became a ‘viva survivor’ and  yet, to be truthful, my viva experience was extremely positive, I’m not sure I’ve the particular badge of ‘survivor’. My viva lasted an hour and a quarter, was largely stimulating discussion and debate around my thesis topic. I then waited 30 nervous minutes outside before being invited back into the room to hear the outcome: passed, correction needed, but congratulations! I was then guided through what they were asking me to re-look at, including a correction to -yes- make my thesis shorter (I had a feeling it was rather long before I went in!) From beginning to end I felt they were there to help me get to the other side of the PhD club.

My supervisor met me straight after and it was great to share this moment with her, an accumulation of 5 years hard work (for her as well as me!) in getting me to the end. We went for a cup of tea and it began to settle in. That afternoon I phoned my nearest and dearest with the news, told my colleagues and went out for a lovely meal that evening with my partner.

I had been warned that it might feel anti-climactic but for me this wasn’t the case. My PhD was hard won: self-funded, incredibly unwell half way through, and my attention divided between multiple part-time employments and tasks. For me, it felt like justification for battling through and getting to the end.

Even now, I still haven’t felt a wane in this feeling of achievement. I’ve started on my corrections after a short break and I really feel that the thesis will be a better document for undergoing this quite arduous and difficult task. But my examiners (I had two externals) feedback was clear and I can see now why they asked the questions they did in the viva and what they were looking to find out from that conversation, in order to structure the corrections.

So whilst I have told you the story of my PhD what this tells you about yours is… sadly not a lot! This is your journey with its own challenges, hiccups and pitfalls as well as support, life-story and personality. What I will say is that it was a comfort for me to hear that other people had made it through that made me feel that I could too. The biggest and best piece of advice came from my supervisor after I handed in: ‘the viva isn’t the end’, she said, ‘it’s a marker along a continuing journey’. I think this was the best take-away I had from the whole experience. But what I will say is this; that the next marker feels more enjoyable and gives me a sense of a journey that is opening up in front of me.

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Today my thesis makes me feel like this: ‘aaaaargh!’

My arguments are usually over within about five minutes of them starting, so trying to keep a clear argument across a thesis is proving tricky. I’ve always been a peace-keeper, perhaps that is why I am more used to being devils advocate than asserting my point of view.

Keeping focussed, and precise, narrowing the topic and staying on message. I have now stapled a post-it mantra to my desktop: ‘TELL THE STORY!’ it shouts at me. This seems common advice across disciplines in the write up phase of the research. I’ve had some small ‘wins’ in the last few days but also plenty of frustrations. But I’m going to keep plugging away at it, I feel I’m inching closer all the time…!

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A good conference = more train miles…

This week I went to my first British Society of Gerontology conference with the Dementia and Imagination team. I was presenting on my PhD to discuss how mixed methods research is possible (as a practice-led theatre student who dabbled in social science methods for my thesis) and the potential use of therapeutic immersive theatres in other settings such as health and social care.

I thought I might be the odd arts person at this conference, but there was a diverse range of papers and it was a really enjoyable experience, minus the hour I spent queuing for a key to my accommodation and an early morning wake up call from a fire alarm!

I find presenting is a good way to help focus my thoughts. I also enjoy thinking about the topic slightly differently depending on who you are speaking with and how you will communicate to each audience and their knowledge base. 

Since starting in February I have been to (in no particular order): Southampton, Epsom, Birmingham, Bakewell, Manchester, Rhyl (and several places in between) for various reasons. I feel a need to go and plant some seeds to counteract all this travel! 



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“The best laid plans…” and all that…

I’ve been a bad blogger and not written for ages. You might be thinking I’ve been celebrating but I have to break it to you: it isn’t handed in yet.

Yep, I’m not so chuffed about it either. I’d been hoping to bask in a summer of glory and relief, my first in years but things haven’t quite come together.

I’m doing some re-structuring that is desperately needed just to really shape it up. Sadly, it’s been painful, lots of throwing toys out the pram and the like. Not pretty.

But, slowly but surely it’s getting there, I just wish it would a little faster!


In the meantime, my new research post has taken me to some exciting places: Cardiff the week before last for the Connected Communities conference, several journeys for training courses on different aspects of the project and several jaunts to our observation site.

I’ve also met a few people who have had experience of balancing that first ‘proper’ job with finishing up, they’ve given me hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.


Now which way did that tunnel go?

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‘End of the line?’ Obsessed to perfection.

Inspired by this ‘prompt’ post at the Daily Touch on obsession and things getting stuck in our minds, made me think of my thesis (which I think easily demonstrates the obsession aspect!)

I’m close to the end now, so not much else matters at the moment. I wake up having been ‘sleep editing’ certain paragraphs in my dreams. I’ve attended two different talks on VIVA preparation and spoke with four different friends and collegues in depth about their experiences of the process. I have folders of re-drafts and edits, print off’s too. My study at home is becoming inpassable for stacks of paper and books. I’m panicking about the library being shut from today until the 23rd over Easter. (What if I NEED that ONE book I haven’t got out already?!) I keep finding new things to read, insert, analyse…

… it goes on. All in all, I think I can safely say I’m obsessed by and with it. I wonder what it will be like when it’s submitted?



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It’s finally getting to the ‘really scary’ phase…

On my computer I have a lovely folder titled ‘Chapters’ and within this folder is several sub-folders with each chapter title. Within each of these folders are several documents: my current ‘draft’ of the chapter and several documents of things to be ‘added in’ or notes from  particular sources. Each chapter document also holds all the reference data used for that particular chapter. 


For me, this has been a pretty solid way of keeping organised. But I now have to do the dreaded thing: merge it altogether into one document to print out and start marking out what’s missing and getting the formatting and referencing down. 


I think the end in sight panic may be rising…

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