For Deb Campbell, Executive Director, Kansas City Senior Theatre, the playwriting process starts with deep listening. When she decided to create a play about dementia for the Kansas City Fringe Festival, she turned to her colleague and friend, Johnna Lowther, for inspiration and support. Together they began a creative exploration by gathering groups of care partners and people with dementia. Deb designed group activities to get everyone connected to each other and to the topic.
Ron and I were honored to participate in one of Deb’s listening groups.
“Choose a word,” she tells us and we select a word from a tumble on the table. Then she asks each person to add their word onto a magnetic board and tell us why they picked it.
One man chooses “apparatus.” He explains, “I’ve worked with tools most of my life. Since the Alzheimer’s, I can’t trust myself. I’ve put the tools away.”
One man selected ‘gorgeous’. “My wife, Annie, loved that word. She described everything as gorgeous, her engagement ring, flowers, a teacup, a bedspread. Everything was gorgeous to Annie. She was gorgeous to me.”
The stories around the words have us leaning forward in our chairs. Deb draws us further into our own stories. She asks us to select from a pile of masks, then invites us to put on the mask and speak.
“Don’t forget the real me,” one person says.
“I’m not trying to hide,” says another.
We all have a turn holding a steering wheel.
“If you were driving this play, where would you take it?” Deb asks.
“In reverse,” a woman says. “I feel like that’s the direction I’m going.”
“My wife keeps getting lost,” a man says. “I now have to take the wheel.”
After the listening sessions, Deb reaches out to people to see if they’d like to share additional stories. She then meets them at their homes to record what they have to share. The stories are transcribed exactly as they are told.
“I’ve learned I can’t hurry the process,” she says. “I just let the stories flow in.
Once Deb has collected all the stories, she begins to hone in on the play.
“I become obsessed,” she says. “I devour the material, slosh around in it, and immerse myself. I feel overwhelmed, yet I trust the process.”
She plans to let the play unfold organically. Her job is helping people reveal their experiences. She won’t shape the drama until the theme emerges from her collection of powerful personal stories.
Originally, she used an image of her mother-in-law’s gnarled hand holding onto her baby grandson’s hands. She thought the play’s theme would be “Hold On.” But as she listened to stories and collaborated with Johnna, she realized the play is about accepting the present instead of holding on to the past. An image of building blocks burst into her mind. Those blocks, once again marked with words, now anchor the play, which is titled, Seven Stages, Seven Stories.
The play will debut July 18 at 7:30 during the KC Fringe Festival and will play several times during the festival. The cast is a mixture of people with early onset dementia, care partners, storytellers, and experienced actors.
Ideally, audiences will be inspired by the depth and complexities of the people who are living with this disease and by the love and connections inherent in the journey.
Treat yourself to a meaningful theater experience. Come to Phosphor Studio 1730 Broadway Blvd. (across the street and south of Kauffman Center).
Saturday, July 18th 7:30
Tuesday, July 21st 6:00
Thursday July 23rd 6:00
Saturday, July 25th 4:30
Visit the Fringe website to get tickets and for any changes in scheduling: www.KCFringe.org
Visit Kansas City Senior Theater for more about Debra’s work:
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.