The concept seems fraught with potential missteps: Large puppets perform stories written collectively by nursing home residents with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. The puppets play characters with those conditions: Florence, Mary, Rose, Henry, Elwood.
It sounds dark and depressing and runs the risk of tastelessness. But Eric Bass of Vermont's Sandglass Theater assures that "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks," which comes to Charlestown Working Theater Friday and Saturday, is serious and respectful, beautiful and sometimes funny.
"Dementia is frightening to us because it can happen, will happen, to many of us," Bass says. But puppets, he suggests, offer audiences a safer emotional distance from a difficult topic than human performers do: They "can embody our fears but free us from having to turn away from them."
Bass and his wife, Ines Zeller Bass, are cofounding artistic directors of puppet-centric Sandglass, which they started in her native Germany in 1982 and moved to Putney, Vt., a few years later. In "D-Generation," both appear onstage with troupe member Kirk Murphy and the puppets. The show also includes original music from a live quartet, video, and a puppet show within the show.
The process that led to the piece began far from the stage.
Sandglass was approached in 2008 by PHI Inc., a New York-based national nonprofit that trains and advocates for long-term care providers.
Renya Larson of PHI asked if the troupe would like to make a theater piece based on a storytelling technique called TimeSlips, which is designed to engage the imaginations of people with Alzheimer's and dementia.
"What they were interested in was a piece that could take these nonlinear stories written by groups of people with late-stage dementia and put them on the stage," says Eric Bass.
"I'm from the Brattleboro area, and so I grew up with Sandglass," Larson explains. "There's sort of a double nature with TimeSlips stories. You have the experience of the facilitator with the participants who are creating the stories, and there's this other reality, the make-believe reality of the stories themselves. And because Sandglass works with puppets, there's this lovely opportunity to have multiple layers of reality functioning at the same time."
Sandglass didn't know anything about PHI or TimeSlips, but the project seemed a good fit with the company's highly visual, also nonlinear method. The economic crash slowed the process, but eventually the Basses and others worked in 10 weekly sessions with residents at two nursing homes in Brattleboro, one in 2009 and the other in 2011.
To start, "there's always an image, usually a kind of surrealistic photograph, that's shown to everybody in the group," says Eric Bass. "We ask leading questions to which there are no wrong answers. The idea is that when people have dementia, they're very often asked the kind of questions which require them to remember something that they can't remember. And over time they can feel very defeated and withdraw into themselves, and their quality of life gets very poor." But with the TimeSlips approach, "everything that's answered, intentional or not, gets accepted and goes straight into the story," he says. "And the people come out of themselves much more over the 10 weeks."
Staff and family members joined the dozen or so residents in each group, providing a nearly one-to-one ratio of caregivers to participants, so even those who had trouble communicating were eventually heard, the Basses say.
The groups came up with two stories that appear in the show, one based on a photo of a man on a ladder who appears to be painting the clouds, the other based on a photo of a couple in evening clothes dancing on a rooftop. "For one of the residents it's not a rooftop, it's a railroad track, and that's what becomes so interesting," Eric Bass says. "The stories come from what they see."
The process is often playful, and the Basses say that's reflected in the final product.
"Since the subject is a rather heavy subject, we don't want to have the feeling when people go out of the theater [that] they're saying, 'Oh God, what am I going to do now, shoot myself?' " Ines Bass says. "We try to stress certain aspects that are really there [in the experience of
Alzheimer's and dementia]. We just have to really discover them, one of which is joy, which can be there if you really look, and if you change your attitude."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the process of making "D-Generation" — and yes, the title is a pun — was transformative for the Basses. He's 65 and she's 66, so the potential debilities of old age are not a distant matter.
"For many of us in this society, knowing we might live longer," Eric Bass says, "the chances of any of us having dementia at some point is greater than it used to be. So there's the presence of a fear, not just within us personally but within our culture, of what might be in store for us."
"On a very personal level," says Ines Bass, "it gave me an opportunity to really talk to my children about it, to tell them, 'Listen, if we get that far, please.' For me that was very important. 'Please don't mourn me. Just look at me the way I am in that moment, and go for the ride.' "
Joel Brown can be reached at