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It is Friday morning at West Yorkshire Playhouse, a theatre in the north of England, and the group behind a pioneering festival, is holding its regular weekly meeting to review progress.
The festival is called Every Third Minute — subtitled “a festival of theatre, dementia and hope” — and several of the curators in the meeting are themselves living with dementia.
Designed to reflect the true, “lived” experience of those with the condition, the festival is the brainchild of Nicky Taylor, research associate at the theatre. Over the past eight years, Ms Taylor’s work has focused on lifting the stigma of a dementia diagnosis and helping those with the condition to lead full lives.
Her mission arose from her experience running creative workshops for the over-55s. She found that when people started to develop cognitive problems, they often stopped attending — just when they most needed stimulating social activities.
In part to address this, four years ago the theatre started staging “dementia-friendly productions” — versions of its mainstream productions that had been amended to ensure that people with the condition could enjoy the experience.
Technical aspects of the show, such as noise levels, are adjusted; clear signs are put up to make sure people can easily find their way to lavatories or the café; and higher numbers of staff than usual are on hand to offer support.
Every Third Minute — so named because every three minutes someone in the UK will develop dementia — takes this inclusive approach a step further. It is, Ms Taylor believes, the first festival in the world to tell the stories of people living with the condition from their own perspective, as opposed to that of people caring for, or grieving for, loved ones with dementia. She says the Playhouse’s “confidence and ambition has grown over the years” and it is now “genuinely sharing creative decision-making with people with dementia”.
The most striking manifestation of this approach is the theatre’s decision to team people who are living with dementia with professional writers. The aim of this strategy is to produce work which is filled with the authentic voice of those coping with dementia’s vicissitudes in their daily lives.
A Horse Called Freedom, part of the festival, is one such production. It is co-authored by Rosa Peterson and Barney Bardsley, a writer.
Explaining the creative process, Ms Peterson, diagnosed almost four years ago with dementia, tells the FT: “I did all the talking and [Ms Bardsley] did all the writing . . . She wrote [my words] down and fiddled with it.”
The stimulus for the work, explains Ms Peterson, was her memory of riding a runaway horse, aged 14. Far from being frightened, she loved “the freedom . . . going galloping, just you and the horse”. Her experience of having dementia is integrated into the play, in part through the use of hallucinations and characters “hearing voices”: both can be hallmarks of the condition.
Of the work, she says: “It is a mixture of happiness and a bit of sadness but really mostly happy.”
Ms Taylor says that from the start it was important to the members of the curation group that “laughter and music” should be an integral part of the festival.
This spirit is visible at the curators’ meeting, where the mood feels light-hearted and warm.
Pete Grogan, who has early onset dementia, reveals that the evening before the meeting, he attended Still Alice, a production playing in the theatre’s main auditorium. It tells the fictional story of an academic diagnosed with dementia at the age of 50.
In keeping with the theatre’s determination that it should honestly and accurately reflect the real experiences of those with dementia, Wendy Mitchell — who has recently published a book about living with dementia, Somebody I Used to Know— acted as paid consultant to the cast.
Mr Grogan tells the group that seeing the production has made him appreciate how much better his own experience is than that of the play’s central character. “I am not too bad on not remembering things. I am certainly not perfect but certainly a lot better than the lady [in the play].”
A life-long musician, he is providing a musical accompaniment for some of the Every Third Minute productions.
As the curators’ meeting draws to a close, he sits down at a keyboard and starts to play. He chooses one song by The Beatles that seems to carry a particular resonance: Let it Be.
Keen to disseminate its approach, the Playhouse has now produced a handbook for groups that would like to follow its example and regularly host visitors from other theatres around the UK as well as from overseas, who are eager to see it in action.
Ms Taylor sums up: “It really is a two-way process between people with dementia and theatre professionals — we learn so much from each other.”
Dementia prize: County council offers £100,000 for best proposal
An English local council has instigated a global search for innovative ideas to transform the way people live with dementia.
Essex county council’s Challenge Dementia Prize is open to individuals, teams and companies that devise “next generation” products, technologies and services to help those affected to “remain connected to the people and places around them and to maintain their identity”, it says.
Benjamin Mann, Essex’s senior policy and strategy adviser, says the prize is an acknowledgment that the council is “not necessarily best placed to find the solutions” to all the pressures facing its residents. Mr Mann says the intention is to engage “the unusual suspects”, such as someone living with dementia.
The 10 finalists will each receive £5,000 and the chance to work with organisations such as PA Consulting, TechUK and the Alzheimer’s Society. The winner will receive £100,000 to invest in their idea. “It could wind up with one person winning the prize but another nine viable, marketable ideas . . . that can then go on and get funding elsewhere,” Mr Mann says.
The closing date for entries is April 13. Further information is available on the council’s Challenge Prizes web page.