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  • On the relationship between theatre and memory

    Monica Prendergast

    A Belfry production looks at the grief and panic of losing one’s life partner to Alzheimer’s.


    THEATRE HAS ALWAYS BEEN ABOUT MEMORY. The act of memorization is at the heart of theatre; actors have to face the challenge of memorizing their character’s lines and also the blocking, cues, costume and set changes that happen throughout a performance. This memorization work can feel daunting as an actor ages. I know more than one actor who has left the stage because the memory work became too hard.

    I found myself back on stage in November at Langham Court Theatre. As a trained actor in my mid-50s, I am finding that memory work is harder than it used to be. My mind does not multitask the way it did in my younger years. The words don’t just drop into place. I have to use memorization tricks, such as finding a keyword in one line that springboards into the thought of the next line. Running lines a number of times a day, carrying my script with me wherever I go, going through it silently while riding the bus; these are all ways that helped me cement my lines in Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-Soeurs so that they finally became fluid and the effort to recall them lessened.

    It is not surprising that playwrights are writing more plays about memory loss as the Baby Boomers age. This generation is living longer than any prior one, and so is also suffering with diseases like Alzheimer’s at a higher rate. I saw Quebecois playwright François Archambault’s lovely play You Will Remember Me in Calgary a couple of years ago. In it, a history professor suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s is abandoned by his wife and left with his estranged daughter to care for him.

    Langham Court Theatre mounted another play on this topic last season—Taking Leave by American playwright Nagle Jackson—featuring an English professor stricken by the same disease. (Note to self: What is it about academics losing their minds in these plays?) Alongside plays on this topic are movies such as Still Alice, Away From Her and Iris. It begins to feel like an aging generation’s collective anxiety about losing one’s mind is leaking into our dramas on stage and screen.

    So it is that the Belfry is premiering Vancouver playwright Jill Daum’s play Forget About Tomorrow in January. Daum is married to singer/songwriter John Mann, the lead singer of folk rock band Spirit of the West. Mann was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2015 at the age of 51. In 2016 he went on a farewell tour with the band, reading his lyrics off an iPad onstage. Mann has written two songs that are heard in Daum’s play.


    John Mann and Jill Daum


    Daum (one of the creators and performers of Mom’s The Word) has written a play about Alzheimer’s that looks at the very early stages of this experience. The fictional Jane (a stand-in for Daum) is long married to husband Tom, a therapist. He complains about feeling anxious and down, and has had to lower his caseload as a result. Finally, Tom goes to a neurologist who diagnoses him with early onset Alzheimer’s. The play goes on to explore how this news plays out for Jane, their two adult children, and for Tom himself. Jane finds herself lost in her grief and panic and these overwhelming emotions lead her to do something she will regret. Daum’s play pushes an audience to come to terms with their own potential responses to the illness of a loved one. Will we have what it takes to get through?

    It makes sense for Daum to have focused on the role of the wife and primary caregiver as the protagonist of her play. She, after all, has been Mann’s caregiver since his diagnosis. As Daum said in a CBC interview last year: “Things just get harder and you have to constantly adapt to it getting more and more difficult—and the person you love getting farther and farther away. I mean, there’s a reason why people are terrified of this disease; it’s very hard.”

    I was curious to hear from the play’s director Michael Shamata (also artistic director of the Belfry) about how and why he chose this play. He tells me, via email, “I saw a reading of an early draft of this play at the Vancouver Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. Jill had invited me to attend, as she was wanting me to work with her on its development.

    “The play is about a woman who is in denial about the role she is going to have to play as her husband’s caregiver—and her husband is still in his prime. The journey of the play is her acceptance of the hand that fate has dealt her. So it addresses Alzheimer’s not through a portrait of the victim, but by looking at someone who is being put in the position of becoming a life-long caregiver—and eventually an Alzheimer’s widow.” And yet, he says, it is also very funny.

    I asked Shamata about what he felt might be some of the challenges staging this play. He replied: “One challenge will be keeping the play flowing along smoothly. Jill has written a series of short scenes—which is entirely appropriate for a play that needs to follow the unfolding of the health issue—but that makes it a challenge to move from location to location. I am excited about the approach we are taking to the design.

    “Another challenge will be finding the quality of openness and almost naiveté with which playwright Jill Daum approaches life. The lead character is not intended to be Jill, but as she has written it, the actress who plays the leading role will need to find that same clear-eyed and progressive attitude that Jill possesses.”

    Speaking of casting, Shamata has cast some excellent Vancouver actors to tackle these tough roles. Jennifer Lines plays Jane and she is onstage for the whole play. Craig Erickson plays her husband Tom, while Colleen Wheeler plays Jane’s friend and employer Jill. I have seen these three in various Vancouver productions at Bard on the Beach, the Arts Club and here at the Belfry. No doubt the acting quality of the production will be high.

    Finally, I wanted to know what Shamata hopes audiences for this play will take home with them afterwards. He tells me, “The play is a celebration of loving relationships. It is a celebration of those who commit to living with their partner through whatever challenges life may put in their way. Therefore, I hope that audiences feel an affirmation of their own loving relationships—and also see the beauty in giving selflessly to another—the beauty that arises from meeting a challenge—despite incredible fear and disappointment and sadness.”

    Theatre itself is a metaphor for many of these things Shamata names. Theatre-making is hugely demanding, so much so that devoting one’s life to it involves facing a lot of fear, disappointment and sadness. The end of every performance, rooted in memory work, is always accompanied by a sense of loss. The loss of the transitory and ephemeral experience of a play that goes on to exist only in the memory. When those memories themselves are lost to diseases like Alzheimer’s, so too is the essence of a life, both onstage and in the real world we are all living and dying in. One day at a time.

    Forget About Tomorrow runs from January 23 to February 18 at the Belfry Theatre. Tickets are available at www.belfry.bc.ca or by phone at 250-385-6815. Focus is a sponsor of this production.

    Monica hopes that 2018 will prove to be a year in which she finds the time to test her memory with more theatre work. Her latest book, co-edited with Will Weigler, is Web of Performance: A Workbook for Youth. 

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