Polishing Alzheimer’s Blues

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Yesterday we had another performance of a Erica Herd’s play, which I directed, and which is in the polishing stages. This show has been performed in bits as a work in progress, and in its full-length version about a dozen times – each performance reflecting the small changes we make to it as we go along. It was good even as a work in progress, as Erica is a strong performer with a good script, and we’ve had mostly positive responses from the audience for every show.
It’s about her situation with her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, which makes it a tough topic to handle, and a tough topic to sell. Many people are reluctant to consider the prospect of deterioration – especially the kind that comes with Alzheimer’s. Erica’s play grew out of her blog, http://open.salon.com/blog/erica_k about caring for her mom, which she wrote for quite a few months before considering turning it into a solo show. Her take on it is surreal, a combination of scenes and songs, in a sort of Brechtian swirl. Her supportive and very creative husband Lorin has provided some parts of the show. We have cobbled it together, moved things around, tried some things that didn’t work, salvaged what we could and used the good bits in other contexts, to try to create a show that flows, that surprises, that reveals. We have walked that fine line between pathos and humor. We feel like scientists – looking for that right chemical balance that makes it possible to view Alzheimer’s with the perspective that Erica has had to develop – that being a grimly humorous willingness to keep caring, to keep trying, in the face of ultimate dissolution.
She’s a champion to take the stage so boldly with the show we have crafted. She is required to make swift leaps from humor to vulnerability, from arch stagecraft to stripped-down and bare desolation. We’ve had to calibrate it more and more carefully as we added more bits that are close to the bone, that prod at people’s deepest fears about losing it – literally.
With each rehearsal, we trim away a word here, a word there – we alter the shape of sentences. In rehearsal, she performs a line, and she and I both feel, at the same time, its lack of trueness. She stops and says, “I don’t want to say that line anymore. It doesn’t feel right.” As we cross it out on our scripts, we nod, happily, knowing that our bodies are guiding us well. Those lines that don’t feel quite right can sometimes be manipulated and altered, and made to work. But if they can’t, it’s good to be able to follow that classic guideline – the best edit is often a cut.
We cut two of those lines for yesterday’s show and, by removing those moments of “not-trueness”, we removed stumbling blocks, and the power of the show continued through those places, far more powerfully than before. Momentum, as my director Rod Menzies used to say. There must be momentum.
Each step in the polishing phase of a show creates more momentum. Adding a harmonica player to the title song Alzheimer’s Blues was a good move. Changing the music track to a more up-tempo song, perfecting the sound, video and lighting cues—all these changes contribute to a more satisfactory experience. Yesterday, for the first time, our audience was people who came to us through TDF or Goldstar, Club Free Time and Gold Club. We were not working to a positively-disposed audience of friends– these people entered the theatre as strangers to us. So when the big laughs came, when the tears flowed, when they lined up to congratulate her and put their names on the mailing list, we were free to accept their praise without reservation or qualification.
We had done the work, and will continue to do the work, to polish this little gem to perfection. We’ll grow the audience for this very important work of theatre, and share the realities of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s. Erica, her husband, her director, her crew, and her mom, have a voice. It’s a worthy cause.

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