Yesterday I was at the West Yorkshire theatre for a dementia friendly performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Nicky Taylor, Community Development Manager, had asked me to write a blog about my experience. I would normally split a blog as long as this over 3 days but think Nicky wants it all in one.
I turned down the last offer to watch a performance at the theatre as I now find it difficult to follow story lines and easily get distracted. However, Nicky asked me to write about the experience from exactly that standpoint. The experience of going to the theatre, if done correctly, can be so much more than the performance itself. West Yorkshire Playhouse, through Nicky Taylor, has done so much to promote the value of making changes to a performance in order to include people from the community with dementia.
The fact that I knew the storyline already would help it seem familiar.. Nicky invited me for the whole day so I could see what was involved in making the day so special.
So I joined her team meeting at 10am.
Nicky addressed the volunteers who were from all walks of life – a great mixture – Students from Leeds – people from a local group – national dementia friends team – dept of health – in house team, guests from Edinburgh theatre – about 40 volunteers.
Nicky then told everyone, “why we offer what we offer”
“Post diagnosis your opportunities shrink, so by responding positively, we can give people the opportunity, without over supporting, to continue to experience something they may have done all their life. The aim is to energise them and leave them on a high emotionally”
As Nicky said:
“Simply be welcoming and being supportive to all, is key,as people with dementia don’t have it written on their forehead.”
The theatre wasn’t built with people with dementia in mind so there are pockets of anxiety.
Poorly lit areas, access to the auditorium etc, but if the volunteers are full of smiles and confidently supportive, these shortfalls can be minimised.
There was the opportunity to join in a pre show sing song which enabled people to prepare for the show and from the animated, smiley faces of those present, I reckon it did just that.
There were very few things I would change but one main anxiety point was the café.
Lunch time was stressful due to having to make one decision after another; salad, rice or chips, a of cup or mug was another choice to make. There was lots of noise and different people asking different questions along the line to get the food which added to the confusion. I think this part will be stressful for the loved ones too as they have to juggle getting the food and keeping an eye on where the people are sitting and whether they’re OK. I’m not sure how this could be made less stressful – maybe pre order – not sure. I found it stressful as I end up choosing whatever is in front of me, which wouldn’t always be my choice if I’d been given more time.I ended up with carb overload as I was asked too many questions and given too many quick decisions to make. The portions seemed on the large size for many people as I looked around the tables – the food was lovely but the option to have a small portion might have gone down well. I appreciate they need to get people through quickly, but it was my least favourite bit of the day.
So time for the show …..There were lots of volunteers about to help and they were much needed to help you into the auditorium as the stairs are very steep and disconcerting but there are plenty of handrails and arms to hold onto.
It was so nice for them to open the auditorium well ahead of the start time to give everyone a chance to get comfortable – TIME – always plenty of time needed.
Let the show begin……………
I was next Natalie and Daisy from the Alzheimer’s society. Natalie from dementia friends and Daisy from the youth engagement programme.
It was a very happy and colourful performance and all the actors were wonderful. Some people with dementia, including myself, have a problem with the ‘tone’ of sounds hurting our ears.The tone of the music was perfect and soft.I did wish I’d brought my ear plugs on a few occasions during the performance as the tone was very harsh at some points – the thunderstorm scene, whistle when blown harshly, and the tone of children’s voices when shouting, all hurt my ears but I think it would have been better with my ear plugs to take off the edge.
The effects were well done as the sudden change in sound and light were done subtly and not suddenly.
It was nice to have the interval to have a walk about and see natural light as it was quite a long time to sit – once again, the volunteers were there to help and the signs around the building were brilliant. For those that didn’t want to leave their seats, people were there to help – including the school children selling ice creams……….
For the second half I sat at the back so I wouldn’t disturb anyone typing. I actually preferred sitting there as it was lighter.It also meant I didn’t have to venture down the stairs………
If someone is unable to follow the story, what aspects of the experience would still be beneficial or enjoyable? Well, the songs brought back lots of memories of watching the film with my daughters which always makes me smile; to see the brightly coloured stage and happy faces seemed to leave people happy and smiley. Laughter is also infectious, whether you get the joke or not, and there was much laughter from the audience.
It may also have been what people did before dementia entered their lives – they may have always gone to the theatre, so with the adaptions that West Yorkshire Playhouse had made to the performance and the theatre, it enabled them to continue to enjoy this passion. It also enabled those who had carers with them to share the enjoyment – it enabled their loved ones to enjoy the afternoon knowing that they were all in a safe environment. People had gone to the trouble to make it possible. To make it dementia friendly made it people friendly.
So what should other theatres consider if they were to try this model? The question they often ask is:How easy would it be to adapt what you have in order to be dementia friendly? Well most adaptions are not expensive. Signage is very simple to get right if people with dementia are consulted – just like at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. They got the signage perfect. It was simple and straight forward and in all the right places. Signs, inside and outside the toilet – perfect. Solutions are usually possible…..and if everyone had smiley volunteers like here, that’s half the battle won. Everyone has to be on board and have an understanding of dementia from the actors, catering and in house staff.
By the end, I couldn’t remember what happened in the first half, but as everyone clapped to time during the last rendition of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you knew that many would go away feeling good and happy about the experience.The cheers and applause at the final curtain said it all. I came out knowing that I’d enjoyed the experience and I’m sure that goes for so many people attending today. It was a nice touch that the actors came out into the auditorium afterwards to say hello to people. I met my Twitter friend, Ripaljeet Kaur leaving with a lovely group from the BME community and she said they usually didn’t come because of the language problem, but they’d all had a fab time due to the atmosphere and singing.
The volunteers did a wonderful job and it wouldn’t have been such a success without them – huge round of applauds to Nicky and her team of ‘purple helpers’ and to all the actors who put on such a brilliant performance.