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Theater Company Embeds Itself in Wauwatosa Nursing Home

371 Productions

For a year, members of a theater company embedded themselves at Luther Manor nursing home in Wauwatosa.

The actors worked with the residents, some of whom have dementia, on a production called “Finding Penelope,” an adaptation from Homer’s “The Odyssey.”

The experience was so moving for those involved, that it became the subject of a documentary called The Penelope Project. (Check out the trailer here.)

Exchange of emotion

"Finding Penelope" playwright Anne Basting and members of the Sojourn Theatre Company took on the project to examine how the work might have a long-term, positive effect on the residents of the center.

Basting, who is also a UWM theater professor,  has spent 15 years working on the connection between dementia and creativity.

She says working on something creative is more beneficial to residents than some other typical nursing home activities.

"Bingo’s great, but do you learn over time in it?  Are you really doing something meaningful and helping people grow and allowing families to connect and staff to connect with residents?" she asks.

Residents read Homer’s Odyssey and then worked with professional actors to perform Basting's play - which she says means no one will know exactly what the end result will look like.

Basting says this project is to show what people can do with residents rather than for them.

“Actually making a shift toward imagination really helps open a relationship to more equal, more responsive, more communicative, more exchange of emotions,” Basting says.

A play within a documentary

The project is also getting attention by way of  "Penelope: The Documentary" by filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein, Basting's husband and president of 371 Productions.

The film captures the ups and downs of the process, catching the struggles of working with those with dementia. It also showed how the actors learned the hard lesson that relationships they enjoyed one day with residents may not be there the next.

Lichtenstein says the film, funded by the Rockefeller Center, was about creating high art with the residents and to show how this inclusive and meaningful project played out.

The film will be screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival on Monday afternoon and Wednesday.