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Performing Dramaturgies of Care:

Staging Age, Memory, and Virtual Community in the Covid-19 Pandemic

Friday, June 25, 2021 | 13:30 - 15:00

Live panel on Zoom; spoken in English. No ASL interpretation or translation will be offered for this event.


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The COVID-19 pandemic revealed issues of ageism that have long existed in our culture. However, the pandemic’s restrictions on social interaction also presented new opportunities for gathering and convening in a safe way, and inspired the development of new aesthetics in the virtual world, especially on Zoom. For some older adults, the pandemic brought new opportunities for digital learning and interacting, and prompted the creation of virtual performances.

This panel asks: How have communities been built around aging and care during the COVID-19 pandemic? What themes and aesthetics developed out of this unprecedented period for theatre? How have performances involving older artists been "staged" in a virtual world, and how might such performances shape social imaginaries of aging and older age? This panel approaches these questions by exploring three recent performances that foreground themes of aging, memory, and (virtual) community during the pandemic: Raising the Curtain on the Lived Experience of Dementia (RTC), a collaborative theatre project with persons with dementia; Split Britches’ Last Gasp (WFH), a groundbreaking zoom film created by Peggy Shaw and Lois Weaver as a site-specific performance during quarantine; and the Second Body’s theatre-concert STYX, which virtually toured in May 2020. Across these papers, panelists will reflect on how performance in the time of quarantine has been transformed in response to COVID-19 while reimagining dramaturgies of care for elder communities in Canada and beyond. 

“Performing Care, Community, and Citizenship through Dramaturgies of Assistance”

Julia Henderson

People with the lived experience of dementia [PWLED] are some of the most vulnerable older adults, with cultural narratives linking dementia to horror, moral failing, pathology, tragedy, fear and shame (Goldman 6). This dementia-ism, which has been widely reflected in theatre, has only intensified during COVID-19 as part of the overall ageist rhetoric of this pandemic. At a time when PWLED and their caregivers could most benefit from care, they have experienced a pause in programs and services, and separation from their families and friends in the name of social distancing for community safety. However, the Vancouver Foundation-funded project Raising the Curtain on the Lived Experience of Dementia (RTC), of which I am a collaborator, responded differently. The project immediately pivoted to resume its activities online, despite widespread social skepticism about the ability of PWLED’s ability to engage virtually. The participants living with dementia, their care partners, the artist-facilitators, and the project researchers of RTC, all co-created a two-day online performance that was live-streamed on YouTube and attended by approximately 130 people across the world. This paper analyzes the production, titled Backstage Pass, drawing on a range of age studies theories, including Basting’s concept of “creative care” and her work with PWLED, and the concept of “access aesthetics” from Disability Theatre (Johnston 153-61). I propose the concept of Dramaturgies of Assistance and Care [DAC] as a framework in progress that describes strategies and approaches to creating performance-as-care, that enable PWLED to participate in live performance in ways that redress loss-based dementia narratives and critically question understandings of assistance. DAC draw on the fact that PWLED “remain resilient and have enduring attributes” (6), including “intelligence, logic, creativity, warmth, humor, empathy, imagination, and moral judgement” (Gullette 179). Through examining expressions of DAC in this specific production, I offer ways we can think about theatre and performance as practices of reciprocal care, that embrace and promote personal agency, relationality, embodied selfhood, citizenship, and community.

Works Cited

Basting, Anne. Creative Care: A Revolutionary Approach to Dementia and Elder Care. HarperOne, 2020.

Goldman, Marlene. Forgotten: Narratives of Age-Related Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease in Canada. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2017.

Gullette, Margaret Morganroth. Aged by Culture. The University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Johnston, Kirsty. Disability Theatre and Modern Drama: Recasting Modernism. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016.

Julia Henderson is a SSHRC-funded Postdoctoral Fellow with Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies and Ageing+Communications+Technologies Project (https://actproject.ca/) where her research involves collaborative performance creation with people living with dementia or other types of age-related memory loss. She has a background as an occupational therapist (Queen’s University), a professional actor (Circle in The Square Theatre School), and theatre and age studies scholar (UBC). Her work appears in Canadian Theatre Review, Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Theatre Research in Canada,  Age Culture Humanities, Thornton Wilder Journal and Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance.

“A Zoom of One’s Own: Staging the Quarantine ‘At Home’ in Split Britches’ Last Gasp (WFH), or How to Have the Last Word”

Benjamin Gillespie

At the height of the global Covid-19 pandemic, Peggy Shaw (76) and Lois Weaver (71) were forced into quarantine in London (UK) while rehearsing for the premiere of their newest duo-performance (and rumoured final collaboration), Last Gasp. Set to premiere at La MaMa ETC in New York in April 2020, the opening was postponed indefinitely. Keen to maintain momentum on their newest work, Shaw and Weaver adapted the performance from a live show to a site-specific “Zoomie” (or Zoom movie), using their quarantine home-as-stage and Zoom recording technology to create a 90-minute virtual performance that premiered on November 20th, 2020 (remaining available online for nearly one month). Sound and film editing was completed virtually with the help of collaborators Nao Nagai and Vivian Stoll, and the film version was cleverly retitled Last Gasp WFH (“Work from Home”). Last Gasp WFH is not only a culmination of Split Britches’ remarkable four-decade-long history on stage, but it also functions as a testament to “the precarious nature of our bodies and the planet we call home.” Embracing their makeshift aesthetic, the performance incorporates the unpredictability of technology in unprecedented times, riffing on the fragmented aesthetic of the present with its very episodic form broken up by monologues, dance sequences, and dramatic tableaux. The format serves to foreground  themes of the ageing process alongside urgent global predicaments: the pandemic, climate change, and Black Lives Matter, among other issues. The result is a reimagination of their aesthetic for the screen that reflects their ability to adapt to the present and remain connected to the cultural moment while drawing upon the trust and experience they have built up over the past 40 years on stage. This paper will explore the implications of the shift from live performance to film and the implications of what was to be their final stage performance. In particular, I will focus on the ways in which they incorporate their own ageing perspectives on the pandemic as well as foreground their shifting abilities as elder artists and long-term partners to remind us of the potential for a better future through the (re)making of community and the performance of care.

Benjamin Gillespie is a PhD candidate (ABD) in Theatre & Performance at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation explores aging, memory, and queer legacy in the late works of the renowened New York-based lesbian-feminist performance troupe, Split Britches. Benjamin is Associate Editor of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art and has lectured in theatre and performance studies at NYU, The New School, Colgate University, City University of New York, and Marymount Manhattan College. He is currently a Writing Fellow at the Schwartz Institute at Baruch College. His articles and reviews have been published in Canadian Theatre Review, Performance Research, Theatre Journal, PAJ, Theatre Survey, Modern Drama, and Theatre Research in Canada, along with a number of edited anthologies. He is co-editor of an upcoming special issue of Theatre Research in Canada (with Julia Henderson and Nuria Casado-Gual) on "Age and Performance: Expanding Intersectionality."

“Dramaturgy of Somatic and Neural Network in the Second Body’s STYX: Self, Agency, and Legacy of Person with Alzheimer’s Disease”

Heunjung Lee

A few videos of persons with dementia went viral through social media during the pandemic and brightened online communities during the challenging time: the former New York CIty Ballet prima ballerina, Marta C. González who lived with Alzheimer’s disease listening to ‘Swan Lake’ and remembering the choreography; a composer Paul Harvey living with Alzheimer’s continuing with playing piano and improvising new songs, which led to the donation of 1 million pounds to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia. These are examples of the embodied memory, cognition, creativity, and selfhood that can persist long after one’s dementia advances. Research exploring the intersection of the embodiment and dementia has established alternate models of personhood and citizenship, by recognizing corporeality as “a fundamental source of self-expression, interdependence, and reciprocal engagement” (Kontos and Grigorovich 2018).

The Second Body, an emerging theatre group based in the UK, explores this bodily self and memory of persons with Alzheimer’s and a creative intergenerational remembering through their theatre-concert STYX (2019), which was adapted for virtual-tour in 2020. Piecing together the story of Max Barton (theatre artist of the Second Body)’s grandparents with Alzheimer’s and the ancient mythology of Orpheus and Eurydice, STYX addresses the illusion of the self and memory and suggests a new approach to the understanding of self and community. This paper will analyze how STYX articulates neurological interconnectedness in making self, memory and community, and advocates the agency and legacy of persons with dementia, through its unique uses of songs and band music, voiceover interview excerpts, and choreographed use of lighting and sound effects. This paper will also highlight the ways in which this performance invites somatic engagements from the audience even in the virtual platform and rethinks the physical interactions and ways of remembering deceased loved ones by family and community. By drawing on Somatics and discussions on sensorial touch of sound and light in performance (Pallant 2014; Sally and Lepecki 2012), my paper will discuss how this piece creates an expanded somatic and neural network through musical engagements, which opens up innovative potentials in both theatre creation and community connection in a time where physical touch is limited.

Works Cited

Kontos, Pia, and Alisa Grigorovich. "Rethinking musicality in dementia as embodied and relational." Journal of Aging Studies 45 (2018): 39-48. 

Pallant, Cheryl. "Beyond skin boundaries in contact improvisation and poetry." Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 6.2 (2014): 139-142.Banes, Sally, and André Lepecki, eds. The Senses in Performance. Routledge, 2012.

Heunjung Lee is a PhD Candidate in Performance Studies at the University of Alberta. Crossing Performance Studies, Age Studies, and Disability Studies, her doctoral research theorizes living with dementia as a new way of being and living. More specifically, Her doctoral dissertation examines how theatre practices reflect/expand/challenge cultural images of the normal/abnormal ageing, and she suggests a new understanding of the so-called disoriented time experiences of people with dementia through performance theories. While working as a research assistant at ‘the Dementia Care Intervention Unit' at the University of Alberta since 2018, she is also developing interdisciplinary research methods connecting theatre and dementia care for the future research project.