“How do we experience an epidemic?”
Martin Andrews, Producing Director of Working Group Theatre, poses this question during a rainy Saturday rehearsal of the company’s upcoming original production, The Broken Chord. The word “epidemic” brings to mind contagious, deadly illnesses that sweep through a country and just as quickly disappear, such as the Black Death killing a third the population of Europe, or the 1918 flu outbreak that caused more deaths than World War I.
Currently 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, about one in eight older Americans. Based on available definitions, does Alzheimer’s disease qualify as epidemic? What about endemic, or pandemic? Do statistics and definitions matter as they gradually manifest in your family members, your spouse–or yourself?
Working Group Theatre, in collaboration with Hancher Auditorium, will be performing The Broken Chord at the Englert Theatre from April 12-14. The production centers on the story of a woman identified only as “Mother” as she experiences Alzheimer’s disease. Different scenes occur in different “worlds,” including the world of her family members, her nurses, the greater community and Mother herself as she experiences life with an increasingly skewed perspective.
Andrews explained that the idea for this production began several years ago when he heard a public radio segment about Jon Witherell, a Marion man who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s (a version of the disease that is diagnosed before the age of 65). Witherell worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the disease before dying in 2010 at the age of 45. Andrews talked to many people who privately struggled with the disease among family members. He also read figures on the large amount of resources needed to care for sufferers, which totaled $200 billion in 2012 alone.
After researching scientific articles and other artistic works, the members of Working Group Theatre decided that they wanted the play to be just as much about the caregivers, both family members and healthcare professionals. “The person with the disease is at the center of a web of people who are also affected,” said Andrews. In order to gather material for the script, members interviewed people in the community about their experiences. The Alzheimer’s Association connected them with two couples facing early-onset Alzheimer’s. As word spread about the project, there was no shortage of people who were anxious to tell their stories. Once they gathered enough interviews, Associate Artistic Director Jennifer Fawcett “sculpted” the material into a script, one that can still be altered during the rehearsal process.
Working Group Theatre has gained much attention for creating shows that spotlight local issues and stories, but the process of creating this production has been different in several ways from previous productions. The Broken Chord incorporates more movement, creating scenes that run the spectrum from traditional theatre to abstract, dance-inspired pieces. Elizabeth Bergman, a local dancer and movement artist, said that this is the first performance she has participated in with a script. She is happy to bring more physicality to the show because, as she observed, “Language can be a shield.”
Andrews wanted an emphasis on movement in order fight the public perception that Alzheimer’s disease only affects the mind. “Motor skills disappear too,” he explained. “First you lose fine motor skills, like buttoning a shirt or tying your shoes. Things that my five-year-old daughter just learned to do.” Eventually, people in the advanced stages of the disease lose the ability to swallow or breathe. Andrews also wanted to create opportunities for the cast to take personal risks in this show–and for acting veteran Andrews, movement is one of those risks. “I wanted a different experience. Movement feels more ‘real’ because it’s a risk to me. I’m not balancing my checkbook in my mind as I do it.”
This production marks the first time that Hancher and Working Group Theatre have partnered with the Englert to present a new work. This collaboration has given the company more resources, including increased marketing and funds for research, without which the production could not have happened. The use of the Englert Theatre has also created some new artistic challenges. The company normally performs in Riverside Theatre’s space on Gilbert Street, which seats 120 patrons. In creating the show for Englert, the members have to consider how to utilize the theatre’s stage technology and how the scenes, with their inherently intimate nature, will appear to audience members sitting in seats that are farther from the stage.
On a rainy Saturday, the cast members think about their future space as they rehearse at Riverside. Andrews and Bergman experiment with twisting, contorting movements with the house lights dark, two other members pointing glaring lights at the duo. Someone reads statistics about Alzheimer’s disease out loud. By 2050, it will cost $1.1 trillion to care for the 16 million Americans who will have Alzheimer’s at that time.
“But it’s not about 16 million. It’s about one … and one … and one … and one …”
Update: Previously, Little Village cited The Broken Chord as being the first Working Group Theatre/Hancher Auditorium collaboration. This is an error, and the mistake has been amended for the web.
Jorie Slodki earned her MA in Theatre Research from University of Wisconsin, Madison, and has past experience in acting, directing and playwriting.