Tackling Dementia Through Theatre

In the run up to their performance of physical theatre piece Remembering Mavis, I caught up with two City of Bristol College students — Ivy Thomas and Féadha Ní Chaoimhe— to speak to them about what’s it like being based at Hamilton House and how they approached the difficult subject of dementia in their work.

As well as being home to one of the largest communities of artists in the city, Hamilton House offers spaces to various education providers and outreach programmes. One of these is the Theatre Media Performance Foundation degree course, run by City of Bristol College.

The course “prepares you in the basics of what you’re going to need if you’re going on to do any sort of acting work”, explains Féadha. “In the first year it’s more academic, and then in the second year, we’re doing a lot more independent study, so we’re creating our own short films, devising theatre together, there’s a lot of voice work”. With only eight students on the course, all of whom come from a range of ages and backgrounds, Féadha describes it as “very intense. We’ve become like a little family — a very dysfunctional family!”

The course places a lot of emphasis on connecting students with the wider community. Being based in the middle of Stokes Croft, rather than on a college campus, helps give the students a broader outlook. As Ivy puts it: “we’re not just students on a course doing some academic work and building on ourselves, we’re part of the world. Like this project here, we’re going in and working with people who don’t really have much of a voice necessarily and trying to help them get a bit of a voice.”

At the moment, the group is working on a physical theatre piece called Remembering Mavis, which is based on conversations the students had with residents of Deerhurst, a nursing home in Soundwell, who are experiencing dementia. Féadha took me through the process:

We’ve been [to Deerhurst] maybe 3 or 4 times. We’d go there every Wednesday and just go and talk to them about their lives. Quite often, you wouldn’t understand a word of what they’re saying. But it’s just being there and picking up different things. And it’s not even what they say, it’s how they carry themselves. Some of the motifs that we build are based on little movements that they’ve done, or pictures that they’ve shown us from when they were younger, that kind of thing.

While both Ivy and Féadha emphasise how much they have learnt on the course through exploring the work of different choreographers and theatre practitioners, they also faced the challenging task of working with people who have lost their independence and whose humanity is sometimes overlooked by others. “It’s so draining” Say Feadha. “It’s taught us to look after ourselves and to not burn out. That was the most important thing about this: not burning out.”

Given their experience in handling such an emotionally difficult subject, as well as being based in a building which is centred around the concept of social and environmental sustainability, I asked them if they had any insights into what ‘wellbeing’ means for them.

Ivy mentions “being connected with your reality, the reality around you. I’d say for me wellbeing is kind of a lifestyle: an active, creative, collaborative place you can go to where you’re teaching and learning.” For Féadha, “it comes back to the vulnerability, and just allowing yourself to open up. Because as soon as you get rid of those barriers, then you have absolutely nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of and you can just go for it.”

The students will be doing four separate performances of Remembering Mavis on 3rd December, part of a collaboration between City of Bristol College, Hamilton House Wellbeing Rooms and Deerhurst Nursing Home. More info HERE.