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Tangles & Plaques

Kirsten Riiber and her colleagues at Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater bring dementia to life on stage and educate younger generations about the disease.
Cast of Tangles & Plaques | Photo Credit: Joe Mazza

As a member of Chicago’s Neo-Futurist Theater, KR Riiber might have guessed that her day job as an activities director at a local retirement home would influence her acting work.  Riiber was awestruck at the similarities between dementia therapy and theater, and so in 2017 began performances of Tangles and Plaques, a play about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. 

“What you find with dementia is that you’re hearing the same story a lot of the time,” KR says.  “But as an actor, we’re trained to do that.  Like playing a scene over and over again, but you always treat it like it’s the very first time.” 

Cast of Tangles & Plaques | Photo Credit: Joe Mazza
Photo Credit: Joe Mazza

Tangles and Plaques is a three-act play demonstrating dementia immersion and therapeutic techniques, shown again in 2018 and 2019. Since then, it’s been adapted into three-hour workshops that demonstrate therapeutic exercises with the purpose of helping young people to understand and relate to dementia and memory care.  

“Statistically speaking, my generation will become a generation of caregivers for the elderly,’” KR says, and so the show is geared toward future caregivers, specifically millennials, with a distinct 90s theme at parts.

“The feeling we got from it was that this isn’t being talked about enough,” says KR,  “and there are people who are craving these conversations.” 

As the production came to an end, KR found that audience members of all ages were staying in their seats wanting to talk more. Talkbacks were introduced to give the audience a forum for asking questions and sharing experiences. 

To start the conversation, KR asked the audience if the performance resonated with them or seemed familiar. 

Cast of Tangles & Plaques | Photo Credit: Joe Mazza
Photo Credit: Joe Mazza

“Looking around this room, every hand is raised,” she describes, “my hair’s standing up just thinking about it, because that’s exactly what we wanted to accomplish: The feeling that you aren’t alone in this.”

The message KR largely received from the audience: We need more. 

“There was a woman who spoke to us after and her mom had, you know, Alzheimer’s, and she just said to me, ‘No one prepared us for this,’” KR explained, “‘By the time I arrived at the beginning to teach myself about memory care and dementia, it was too late.’ And that really resonated with me.”

In the future, KR would like to adapt the show to be able to hand it off and be performed in more places, and inspire more conversations about dementia. 

Today, KR serves as artistic director and ensemble member at The Neo-Futurist Theater in Chicago. 
For more information about Tangles and Plaques, and the Neo-Futurist Theatre in Chicago, check out https://neofuturists.org/.

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