Mark Metcalf

Finding Penelope

By - Mar 16th, 2011 12:45 pm
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Odysseus and Athena vanquish their enemies. photo by Alan Magayne-Roshak. James Hart as Odysseus, Caroline Imhoff as Athena.

Anne Basting works with the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee Center for Aging and Community.  As part of that work, she spent time at Luther Manor in Milwaukee.  She loves the theatre, and has long been curious about the community-forming energy that is inherent in theatre work.  So, she decided she would like to put on a play at Luther Manor with the long-term care patients there, particularly the ones with some form of dementia.

The play she wanted to do didn’t exist, so she began to envision creating one from the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who waited patiently and loyally for twenty years for her husband to return from the Trojan War. Each day, Penelope wove her stories into a tapestry and then ripped them out at night while she fended off hundreds of suitors who sought her for her beauty, her kingdom and her wealth. Anne sought the help of Sojourn Theatre, a Portland-based company that has developed a site-based, community-specific method that focuses on process and a dialogue between artists and audience/community members, rather than a traditional ‘play’ as we have come to know it.

I had the pleasure of watching a rehearsal (they actually refer to it as a devising) some weeks ago, and it was a revelation to watch actors, directors, staff, patients and visitors working together through that archetypal story of waiting and loss to grow a piece of theatre. It was profoundly moving to watch this particular piece of theatre traverse the corridors of Luther Manor and involve the stories of the patients, and even some of the residents and staff.

Last week I saw a preview of the play itself, aptly titled Finding Penelope. It blends the classic tale of Penelope with the present-day story of a young woman who has finally come to Luther Manor to see her mother, Penelope, whom she has never visited in the home because of fear:  fear of being surrounded by the intense reality and needs of age, fear of being forgotten and the nearness of death. The result is the great, millennia-old epic story, grounded in a serious reality that we all deal with as we age, or as those we love and depend upon age, and lose what we think of as ‘identity’ here in the West.

Finding Penelope performs this week, and I am told that all performances are sold out, but try to get tickets anyway. It is a unique and wonderful theatrical (and life) experience that many people should see. It may sound like it would be depressing, but it is just the opposite because the residents, the people who live there, who wait there, and those who serve them there are so joyously involved in the making of it and in the performance.

The purpose of creating Finding Penelope was to explore what caregivers and doctors have known for a long time: that exercising the creative imagination, connecting people to each other through the arts, stimulates memory and raises the individual above the pain of loss, and can actually bring pleasure and joy with a longer-lasting and more profound effect than pharmaceuticals could ever do. And that is the secret that Penelope holds.

Finding Penelope is being performed at Luther Manor March 16-18, however all performances are sold out. However, last minute tickets may become available. To be placed on a waiting list, please call 414.464.3880 or visit the Penelope Project’s website.
Categories: A/C Feature 1, Theater

0 thoughts on “Finding Penelope”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks, Mark. Beautifully done.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Anne Basting is a colleague in the Peck School of the Arts where she is an Associate Professor of Playwriting as well as the Director of the Center on Age and Community at UWM. After attending this excellence performance yesterday I wrote this to her:

    I can’t tell you how moved I was by the performance this afternoon. And touched on so many levels. I found myself ready to sit down and sob at the end. It took me aback to feel that way.

    Seeing the residents actively participating was amazing. Even those sitting in their rooms or in the halls enjoyed the parade of Strangers (the audience who traveled from one scene to the next throughout the building to the sound of traveling music and cleverly placed recordings). One woman stood at the door of a room and waved. She said, “And my husband is just sleeping through this, what a shame.” There he was in the bed beyond.

    This was both incredible art and an incredible human experience. I look forward to her work in the future.

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