D-Generation: The final performance

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BRATTLEBORO — Even in the darkest depths of late-stage dementia joy can be found if you know how to find it. Tapping into dementia patients' creativity using TimeSlips Workshops through creative engagement as a way to communicate, members of Sandglass Theater interviewed dementia patients at Pine Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation and Holton Home to weave a collection of stories for their award-winning full-length theater piece, "D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks." It first showed in 2012 followed by tours around the United States and Europe. It will be into its final performances on May 24 and 25.

The stories that are associative and non-linear range from humorous to terror-filled to mysterious and were derived from prompts, such as a postcard of something iconic with the question "what would you like it to mean" rather than suggesting they should remember who or where it is, delving into their imagination. The stories are told by fictional characters brought to life by puppeteers Eric Bass, Ines Zeller Bass and Kirk Murphy who also serve as caregivers working with realistically crafted puppets named Florence, Elwood, Rose, Mary, and Henry sculpted by Coni Richardson, Ines, and Jana Zeller.

More than a puppet show, D-Generation powerfully reveals the complex world of dementia in the form of two TimeSlip sessions accompanied by video segments produced by Michel Moyse visually presenting what the inside world is like for them. Original music written by Paul Dedell, and lighting design by Sabrina Hamilton enhances the performance. D-Generation is a deeply moving production that brings insight to dementia's inner world and a method to unlock it.

Roberto Salomon, who is usually found in El Salvador working in theater and has directed other Sandglass Theatre's productions over the past 15 years, won "Best Direction" for this work at the Puppet Festival (r)evolution, and the piece received a Citation of Excellence in the Art of Puppetry from UNIMA, USA.

When Sandglass first asked Salomon to join the team he thought, "What an incredible theme." Working with 50 organized pages of interviews from which to write the play, the team worked backward, pairing the personalities with the puppets already in progress instead of actors with a script.

"The talent and the work that goes into making the puppets and making them real took hours, getting the twist of the mouth or the shape of the eye just right," Salomon said. "When you work with puppets that are that well created they become more than real people. That is the strength of puppets. In my mind, they became stronger personalities than my own relatives who have dementia. The things they say can stick in your mind and become real."

Sentiments reflected also in a press release from Sandglass by Ines when she spoke about the five-puppet cast members she toured with, "I tend to see them for what they are: inanimate objects who get stuffed back into their traveling box after they are done. But as time went by, I made sure they were more tenderly packed away after each performance. I guess they also crept slowly into my heart."

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Salomon found during the talk-backs at the end of each performance of this show that it helped people who are dealing with family members with dementia, including himself. Working on this show changed how Salomon communicated with his 101-year-old mom. The biggest lesson for him was that there is a world within, but you have to be patient and patience is a difficult thing to have sometimes.

His favorite character in the play is Florence voiced by Eric whose character was developed when one woman during a moment of clarity made the comment, "When you come (to the residential home) we all are the same," inspiring a total monologue for Florence.

According to Eric, she meant that class disappears, who's educated and who's not disappears, and who is rural and who is urban no longer matters. These things are much less who they are because there is something that happens within dementia. If you don't have a memory, or it is elusive, you only have what's left, no past, no future, just the present. "But the residents loved participating," Eric said. "We came every week the same day of the week. It was mostly the same residents who participated and while they didn't remember us they remembered that they had a good time last time."

Following a talk-back at a Burlington show, an audience member said "I have dementia," now in its early stage. She said, "The show is affirming, which is difficult to be affirming in such a difficult subject. Somewhere in the depths of all this, there is a joy to be found."

Another audience member who fears her own possibility of developing dementia said was heartening to see the life spirit that was enjoying things in its simplest form.

It is a bittersweet ending to the final performances of D-Generation, according to Eric, who said that as personal lives change so do the projects to work on.

Performances are May 24 and 25 at 7:30 p.m. at the New England Youth Theater, 100 Flat St. Tickets are $18 general and $16 for students and seniors. For tickets and information visit Sandglass' newly rebranded website sandglasstheater.org. NEYT is a fully accessible theater.


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