If laughter is the best medicine then Chicago must be the feel-good city. After all, it's the home of improvisational theater. Now researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine are looking at other benefits of laughter.
They’re exploring whether improv might be just what the doctor ordered for a certain group of patients.
For WBEZ, Julianne Hill reports.
Researchers want to know even more about the powers of imagination-- and laughter. They are looking at improv to see how it affects the well-being of an unusual group of patients.
At 10:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, about a dozen people file into an improvisational theater class. Among them, a pretty blond in her 50s and a woman who is a retired biologist and wears big glasses. And a retired professor.
The course is held in a conference room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and looks like any other continuing education class. But the players in this class are different: Everyone in the ensemble has dementia.
Mary O’Hara is a social worker at Northwestern’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“Improv is all about being in the moment. For someone with memory loss, that is a very safe place. Maybe thinking about the past and trying to remember makes the person a little bit anxious. Or even a bit sad because their memory is failing. And maybe thinking about the future too much is also anxiety provoking So being in the moment is such a safe and a good place to be,” O’Hara explained.
Northwestern’s researchers are working with the Lookingglass Theater Company. They want to know if this 8-week program using theater games affects the players’ quality of life.
“There’s no experience required, there’s no script, there’s no memorization. They bring to it just their creative potential. And they are successful at this,” O’Hara said.
Christine Mary Dunford with the Lookingglass led the group of novice performers in very simple improv games.
“Some of the basic tenants of improv that are perfect for working with people with dementia are the concept of yes, or yes and. So fundamental to all our work is that whatever answer someone comes up with the rest of us are going to be able to work with it,” Dunford began. “My favorite moments are when they are delighting each other and they have a lot of fun. You know what I think my favorite exercise of all time is? ‘Yes It Is’ because they take an object and they transform it and they always surprise themselves and the others. And it’s always magical and exciting,” Dunford explained.
Later, Dunford told the players to stand in a circle for a listening game called, “Chord.”
“We’re going to close our eyes and we’re just going to hum on the same sound. After a while, when it starts feeling really good, anybody who wants to can change the pitch or add a different kind of sound,” Dunford said.
After about two minutes, the chord morphed into nature sounds.
“We’re never trying to be funny. We’re just an improvisation group: We’re an ensemble of people working together and it ends up being funny quite often but just as often it ends up being touching or moving or provoking,” Dunford explained.
The players—like Wolfgang—all brought their lifetimes of experience into the room.
“I was a professor of Hebrew studies, old testament at this university here, oh, in the northern suburbs here. I have Alzheimer’s and that’s why I don’t remember it but you know it was one of the big universities in this area,” Wolfgang shared.
The group plays sculptor, molding one another into an emotion.
“One of you is the sculptor and one of you is the clay,” Dunford instructed the group.
Outside the room, Wolfgang’s wife Mary Beth waited for him.
Hill asked her what it’s like being the caregiver of someone with dementia, watching him lose skills on a day-by-day basis and to come to class and thinking that he’ll learn something.
“I know this is a study but, this is an opportunity for us to enjoy something.; partly together and partly separately. My hope for him is he maintains this very sweet disposition. There is still so much of him there. And we still have a deep relationship. The hardest thing for me is,” Mary Beth struggled, “that it can’t really grow.”
Early results show the players experience an improved quality of life; Wolfgang agreed.
“I think we all have become more thoughtful in terms of the work in which we live. And it will indirectly show itself with our interactions with our family we have grandchildren, a wife, etc. etc. and also in the wider world,” Wolfgang said.
Julianne Hill is a freelance writer and producer, and a former recipient of the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for journalists covering mental health.
Music Button: Second Sky, "Under The Line", from the CD The Art of Influence, (ESL)