Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Coats, hats, dogs and noises off-stage

Yesterday I had the pleasure of running a storytelling session at the Corn Exchange, Newbury for one of their monthly Memory Cafés. Memory Cafés are for for people living with dementia, their carers, their families and friends.

Every month, the Corn Exchange hosts a different arts activity. There are cakes and mugs of tea and coffee to be had whilst you take part. This is a relaxed and supportive environment.

Memory Cafés are as much about celebrating who we are as human beings as finding new ways to engage with each other. It goes without saying that there's a great deal of laughter.

I like to mix things up a bit when I'm working with people who have difficulty remembering things. Memory isn't like a light switch that you can turn on whenever you feel like it. It's more like casting a line into a deep lake and waiting for a particular fish to bite.

Sometimes you might not even get a fish. It might be a boot or a shopping trolley. Ah, but what fun you can have with a shopping trolley!

To start with, I told a story about a divided but deeply connected community. It's a colourful story. On one side of a road it's blue and cold and watery and on the other it's hot and yellow and dry. I tell the story with a lot of repetition - and this is how stories work, of course. The number three is a constant - three bears, three chances, three wishes. This is, in part, how stories are remembered. Stories are also remembered because they are visualised. You tell a story  by creating pictures with your body, your words, your inflections and in my case, I learn a story by drawing it and colouring it in. Here is the story I learnt from Sef Townsend last year and the one I told yesterday:

"What happened next?" is a brilliant way to lead into the second part of a the session (my session had three parts - I like threes). There were several ideas about the outcome of the story. Most were positive and pragmatic and one was very inventive as well as practical. Some people are natural diplomats.

Part two was a participative story-making adventure. I love the risk element of story-making. I never know what's going to happen, where people's imaginations are going to take me. All I know is that I have to respond very quickly with my own inventiveness and trust they will deliver me safely the other end of the story! We started off with a selection of hats. They chose one, I put it on and immediately became who? "Fred!" someone called out. "Fred walking a dog," someone else said. The story progressed from one hilarious incident to another. The story-makers became dog-minders, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers and a bongo-playing vet. 

The next step involved creating sound effects with the instruments I'd brought along. This helped us to memorise the tale. We had everything from shop bells, barks and whistles to the the sound of a dog being alarmingly sick. We rehearsed the sounds and committed the major components to memory, then retold the story with great gusto and much added detail. The dog ended up eating a lamb chop, 12 cakes and two candlesticks, not to mention seriously injuring a horse and costing Fred £715 for the damage!

We started off focused and serious. Now we were full of energy and laughter. Part three took us to a place where people could draw if they wished or just talk or sit and think. The sounds of creativity are varied. This assumed the texture of small bubbles rising to the surface and gently popping. There were pictures of very fat dogs and huge chops, shops and cakes and a cat because dogs remind you of cats and a water fowl because water fowl are very beautiful. This was a quiet picture with elegance and delicacy. Each person finds what they need at the end of a storytelling session. 

When I went home I did a drawing as well. I drew bears because there are three of them - but the story I drew only has one. If you would like to hear it, you can book me! 

Useful links:

Alzheimer's Society
Dementia Action Alliance
Dementia Friends
Storytelling Museum

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