(This is part of a series of posts about how working in theater prepared me for caregiving. You can find the first post here.)
Do Your Homework:
One of the things I love most about acting (besides getting to play dress-up for a living) is how much I learn. Every play teaches me something new. Of course, all that learning doesn’t happen by magic. In theater as in life, if you want to do the job right, you have to do your homework.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to work on Donald Margulies’ play, Time Stands Still. My character, Sarah, was a photojournalist grappling with wounds — both physical and psychological — from an IED explosion in Iraq.
I know my way around cameras and I’m married to a journalist, so I was okay on those fronts. But I know next to nothing about warfare. I’ve never been in the military; I don’t even like war movies. Time to hit the books. I studied war photography and watched films with graphic battle scenes. I had never wanted to take in that much violence, but I simply couldn’t do justice to the play without witnessing the blood and gore and horror of war, at least on film.
Here’s another example, from King Lear. When actor Simon Russell Beale played Lear at London’s National Theatre, he heard about a theory that Lear had Lewy Body dementia. Beale made it his business to learn more. He worked with a medical consultant to understand what might be happening in Lear’s brain and what his symptoms could be.
Research is no substitute for acting; it’s just a base, what my mother the math teacher would call a ‘necessary but insufficient’ part of the craft. I wasn’t writing an academic paper about war photography when I played Sarah; I was portraying a human being who lived in relationship with every other character in the play. But without the research, I couldn’t have done Sarah justice. Knowing what she had been through gave me a solid foundation to build on.
Research helps in caregiving as well.
When I realized that Mom was showing signs of dementia, my actor instincts kicked in and took me straight to the library. Books like The 36 Hour Day helped me understand what was happening in Mom’s brain and how to support her as the disease progressed. Since then I’ve attended conferences and found a wealth of other books and resources: Memory Bridge, the Dementia Action Alliance, Validation Therapy, Music and Memory, Person-Centered Care, the Eden Alternative, Learning to Speak Alzheimer’s. . . the list goes on and on, and the field is growing. Almost ten years after Mom’s diagnosis, I’m still learning.
I’m not researching and writing an academic paper. I’m crafting a relationship with a human being, someone I love and respect. Doing research and reading books is no substitute for spending loving time with Mom. It’s a ‘necessary but insufficient’ step in dementia care, a way to gain insight into her experience and find ways to improve my own. But I like it, and it helps me, so I do it — and I get a kick out of the notion that I’m doing homework for the very person who taught me to do homework.
I was raised by a teacher, after all.