dementia · immersive theatre · sensory · theatre

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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