Every day, millions of people of all ages post, like, tweet and blog to share their opinions. Humans feel the need to make their voices heard on everything, even the most mundane events of the day. Yet within society, there exist those who never get the opportunity to tell their stories, to share the wisdom of their lifetime. Many elderly Americans miss out on this basic human need, especially those with dementia.
A Will Not His Own is a play based on the stories of seniors with dementia. Dr. Nichole Lariscy, English professor at UAB and elder at South Highland Presbyterian Church (SHPC) in Five Points South, has partnered with Rachel King-Barr, author and co-director of SHPC’s children’s program, to write the drama after interviewing dementia sufferers at SHPC’s adult day center.
A Will Not His Own first originated when Lariscy and the students in her 2011 Neurology and the Arts class visited the SHPC senior center as a service-learning project. They met with seniors and recorded the stories they told, which students then turned into short stories. Lariscy and King-Barr then turned these vignettes into a script expressing the unique situation in which the elderly find themselves when they can no longer remember the entirety of their decades of experience.
“The storytelling is fun and open and free but also profound and sincere and fundamental on many levels, “ Lariscy says, “and everyone can feel that.” Both seniors and students recognized the importance of their time together, she noted.
What inspired Lariscy was a program she worked on while earning her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The program is called TimeSlips, a form of art therapy using photos to spark seniors’ creativity and allowing them to interact with others by telling stories about the photos. Sometimes the stories are memories, sometimes fiction grounded in truth, and sometimes just fun stories. Their goal is patient-centered, to enhance the seniors’ lives.
This show features actors of all ages to represent patients’ differing stages of dementia. The more advanced the dementia, the more the patient regresses. So while the actors portraying patients are all adults, only one is a retiree — the one whose character is just entering dementia. In addition, Lariscy has cast adolescents as the nurse, doctor and art therapist to show how 90-year-olds might view the younger adults responsible for their care.
Lariscy wanted to take this process one step further and share seniors’ stories with the community. Her vision for the play is to give a voice to people who are forgotten in society, underrepresented in the media. They “need their stories told,” she says simply. Through her project, she hopes to “bridge relationships between UAB and communities, to use the plays as outreach, awareness building and community celebration.”
In fact, A Will Not His Own is just the first step in Lariscy’s journey to share marginalized voices. Her ongoing project, The Imaginarium Chronicles, has the goal “to blaze tales across the Magic City.”
This may have begun with the stories of dementia patients, but Lariscy is already forging ahead. As the two-year task of sharing the stories of seniors comes to fruition this weekend, The Imaginarium Chronicles is already interviewing other groups in the Birmingham community.
This spring, Lariscy and her students traveled to UAB’s 1917 Clinic, which services HIV/AIDS patients exclusively. Students listened and recorded patients’ stories. They found this group not only able, but eager, to share their stories with the world.
When asked why she wanted to write about HIV/AIDS patients, Lariscy said that “few people talk about HIV these days” and that “the clinic will be handling a lot more patients with the closing of Cooper Green, and so it seems like a timely story to tell now in Birmingham.”
But the story doesn’t end there. Lariscy has already begun plans for the third voice she wants to share with the community, by partnering with Birmingham’s WoodlawnHigh School to record and share the stories of students there. She plans for the dramatizations of both the HIV/AIDS patients and Woodlawn students to premiere in 2014.
The Imaginarium Chronicles, according to Lariscy, does help the groups who share their stories and the community members who see the shows, but it also serves to develop the students who participate. Lariscy believes strongly in the benefits of service learning and says that her students gain just as much from their interviews as the interviewees.
“It is a great way to teach composition,” Lariscy says, adding that her students “learn advanced interviewing skills and the value of finding and developing relationships with local stakeholders when writing about just about anything. They are sympathetic and open and good listeners.”
Students participating in Lariscy’s project this fall will be from two specialized honors programs at UAB: Experiential Learning Scholars Program (ELS) and Global and Community Leadership Honors Program (GCL). The two programs are similar in their prioritization of experiential learning, which pairs classroom education with life lessons from service in the real world.
The GCL program already has a partnership with the Woodlawn area, so The Imaginarium Chronicles has found a natural fit there, working with the high school as well as the Desert Island Supply Company (DISCO), a student support center offering tutoring, creative writing, in-school, and community programs. Lariscy says she looks forward to furthering relationships in the Woodlawn neighborhood and in all future groups The Imaginarium Chronicles may reach.
To reserve seats or get more information about A Will Not His Own, contact Lariscy at email@example.com. Showtimes are Friday, May 31 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, June 1 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $7 for children and students. For more information on the show or the overarching project, visit A Will Not His Own or The Imaginarium Chronicles on Facebook.