Friday, August 10, 2012

Theatre as Therapy: New Writing and Neurology

Following on from an earlier blog by the company, Sarah Paviour explores the motivation and process behind Labyrinth, one of Inkling Productions’ latest projects

Last year Inkling Productions agreed to take on a new writing project with a difference. We were asked to design a show for an audience of people with severe/degenerative and end-stage neurological diseases and injuries. We decided to tell an existing story, that of Theseus and the Minotaur in a modern way to ensure some elements were familiar with our audience.

Theseus and the Minotaur was ideal for this task as it provided many opportunities for including multiple performance elements (such as mime, puppetry and acrobatics) as well as an interesting and diverse range of props and costumes. It was an exciting tale with a strong narrative and a natural humour that made it perfect for this brief.

Research into this specific audience demographic is very limited; however there is an ever-growing evidence base regarding the success of role-play and expressive activities, such as dance, in earlier stages of neurological disease.

With the idea of theatre as therapy at its heart, the creation of Labyrinth required a different process to that which we were used to. A skeleton script was written to structure the story and this was then adapted to be as appropriate as possible for our audience base.

We used a narrator character to keep the story moving, explain some of the plot lines and describe the action for those audience members with poor eyesight or eye muscle spasticity, which prevented them from watching the action. We also used a lot of mime with dialogue to aid those with hearing difficulties. Repetition was used to benefit those with short-term memory problems.

As well as physical involvement for the audience - which was limited to a certain extent due to the nature of their conditions, including end-stage Huntington’s Disease / MS / Parkinson’s Disease, to name a few - as far as possible, the main thing we hoped to gain from this production was an improvement in psychosocial well-being.

The main reasoning behind this was to promote escapism in order to improve the mood of the residents, which in turn has been shown to improve adherence to therapy and rehabilitation. We also aimed to create a ‘distraction analgesia’ – there is a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of this approach in reducing pain in both acute and chronic conditions. Theatre provides the perfect forum to implement these two techniques and potentially also improves mood through boredom alleviation and generally by enjoying the entertainment.

Depression and mental illness are common in people with neurological disease so we introduced an element of comedy and generally kept the script light-hearted. The rhythmical quality of music and poetry and the therapeutic benefit that this has been shown to give people with neurological disease was our final addition at the script-writing phase.  Once this was constructed we cast the show.

We then entered an improvisation phase where ‘challenges’ were devised to provide barriers to Theo’s progress within the labyrinth. We aimed to keep the show quite fantastical to promote escapism for our audience and introduced some puppetry and a full ‘Minosaur’ costume. Use of colour has been shown to evoke reactions and responses, even in people with severe neurological diseases, so costumes and props were designed to be as colourful and flamboyant as possible.

We staged Labyrinth in the round to make the audience feel like part of the action. We also used any available opportunities for audience interaction – from a game-show-style vote for which potion the character ‘Theo’ should drink, to handing out multi-coloured ping pong balls for people to throw when ‘Theo’ caused a partial collapse of the Labyrinth.

We were very lucky to find a very physical, expressive and talented cast who did a huge amount of improvisation during the development phase. We feel that there is a lot of potential for ‘Theatre as Therapy’ in this area and are keen to develop this further. The show received a great response in its rehabilitation venue; from staff, residents and resident’s families and we are keen to take it to similar venues in the future.

If you’d like to get in touch with Inkling about this or other projects, please follow the link at the top of the article to the company website.

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