Dementia Action Week: Theatre of Wandering draws on real-life Coventry stories

 

This September, local artists will team up with international theatre-makers to present a bespoke new walk-about performance focused on the experiences of people with dementia and those who care for them.

Based on an original production by Japanese company OiBokkeShi, Theatre of Wandering blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality, led by characters who take audiences on a journey through the city streets.

In collaboration with Entelechy Arts, a group of local artists are currently reimagining the concept as part of our City of Culture programme, through a process of conversation and co-creation with Coventry residents.

With this week marking Dementia Action Week, we spoke to a few of the artists involved to find out more.

Richard Walls

Richard Walls

“The concept originally came from an artist called Naoki Sugawara, who is a care worker and theatre-maker in Japan, and had been running workshops for people with dementia,” explains Richard Walls, the writer and dramaturg for the upcoming production.

“The story was about a young man who returns to the city where he grew up and comes into contact with an older character he knows, who is looking for his missing wife who has dementia. As the two of them go around the city looking for her, it becomes quite difficult to know who’s actually part of the performance and who just happens to be passing by.”

Alexandra Johnson is also supporting the writing of the show, with a particular focus on research and gathering real-life stories to feed into the narrative.

“My job is really to go out and meet people who are living with or working with dementia in some way and to listen to their stories,” she says. “Some of that is talking to individuals and sometimes it’s visiting clubs or care homes. I’ve found some groups led by the Alzheimer’s Society and Age UK, as well as churches, temples and doctors’ surgeries.

“It’s really important to us that people with dementia themselves have a chance to have their voices heard, because so often they’re ignored or people just speak to their carers. We want to hear about how they’re doing, about their hopes and dreams,” she adds.

Alexandra Johnson

Alexandra Johnson

“By 2040, an estimated 1.6 million of us in the UK will be living with dementia,” says Richard, “so it’s something that many of us have experienced either directly or indirectly. Yet it still feels hidden in some ways – we often have a tendency to hide it away and pretend it isn’t happening.

“I remember after my own grandmother died, for example, people would only really talk about her life before the dementia – you’d rarely hear anyone sharing stories about visiting her in the care home, for example,” he says.

Indira Lakshmi Prasad

Indira Lakshmi Prasad

Indira Lakshmi Prasad, who is developing a sound commission that will complement the live performance, recently returned to Coventry after a period of living and working in India. She’s noticed that this attitude towards dementia is even more prevalent in some places and communities than in others.

“In India and in a lot of South Asian diaspora communities, there is still no culture of openly discussing psychological and neurological conditions. In some cases it’s a lack of education, and there’s also often a stigma attached to it, so I really want to make sure that we engage with people in the South Asian community.

“The lack of understanding people have can cause real problems as well,” she continues. “I recently spoke to a social worker who was talking about instances where people with dementia have been arrested for behaviours that are linked to their condition. So it feels really positive to be working on something that might help to broaden public education and make a meaningful difference.”

Ultimately, what will make this piece of work unique is that it is designed to allow room for both contributors and audiences to make it their own and experience the story in different ways – which is both daunting and exciting for the team who are creating it.

“Often as a playwright, you start out with a clear idea of what you want the ending of a story to be, and you start working on a play in order to deliver that ending,” says Richard. “But in this context, I see my role as very much about facilitating the ideas and experiences of other people. I’m going into it with the mindset of, ‘I don’t have all the answers, let’s just have a chat about it,’ and hopefully one conversation will naturally lead to another.”

“I really hope that we’re able to open up a dialogue for people who are maybe having difficulty talking about this,” Alexandra agrees. “I also think it’s about capturing people’s memories before they’re lost, and creating a legacy for these people and their families. It’s about remembering the people who can’t remember for themselves.”

Theatre of Wandering is a co-production between Coventry City of Culture Trust and Entelechy Arts, in association with OiBokkeShi, talking place in September 2021. Further details and tickets will be released soon.

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