Anne Basting Reflects upon the Transformative Nature of Theater and Storytelling

Aging Today, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Anne Basting Reflects upon the Transformative Nature of Theater and Storytelling


Anne Basting takes a philosophical, visionary and mission-driven approach to her work of transforming how we view aging, community and inclusivity through the creative arts. The 51-year-old married mother of two is a professor of theater at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and founder and president of TimeSlips, an evidence-based, award-winning creative storytelling program for older adults. Basting works hard toward the day when no one wonders why someone might want to spend their career improving the lives of older adults, and instead sees that choice as both a normal and desirable path.

Aging Today spoke to Basting in October 2016 about her career helping elders, her recent MacArthur Fellowship award and how she hopes to expand her work.

Aging Today (AT): Could you explain your connection to older people, and why they became your life work?

Anne Basting (AB): Part of my mission is that no one ever has to ask that question again. Today it feels as if it is abnormal to make older adults one's life work, and people assume it's odd for young people to want to work with elders. I want young people to understand that it is not odd.

AT: How did your work progress into using storytelling as a way to spur creativity?

AB: I had done my dissertation, and was turning it into a book, The Stages of Age: Performing Age in Contemporary Culture. I studied theater groups across the country, mainstream theater groups, looking at the social performances of aging [or how we act dependent upon what society expects of us]. What I came to is that in performance, by playing a role (commonly, a new role, especially for older adults who had never performed in a play), we could transform how we understood aging. Theater is this ever expansive process where you're growing as you're taking on a new role. Theater could literally transform how [older adults] understand their own experience of aging.

AT: When did you segue into working mainly with dementia patients? And why?

AB: I thought, 'Can this transformative capacity of performance be used with people with profound disability?' That's when I started volunteering at a nursing home in Milwaukee that housed people with dementia. All the work [with older adults who had dementia and Alzheimer's] at that time was in reminiscence, which originated with Robert Butler, and I tried [to use reminiscence] to trigger memory [of older adults with dementia] in order to tell stories. This was less about doing theater and more about changing their social role from sick person to storyteller.

Reminiscence work was not successful in that [nursing home] setting; the residents were pharmaceutically restrained, there was lots of noise, I don't know how they functioned, period.

I thought-what if we made it up instead? Used improvisation? All you need is a prompt. I took a picture of the Marlboro Man out of a magazine and said, let's make this up! What do you want to name him? It worked beautifully. It became a 45-minute story with laughter, song, humor, poignancy. It was a double transformation, as it didn't just transform the role of elders to storytellers, but the staff gathered around watching, and became engaged: they were in awe, they wanted to join in and sing with us, to be part of it with us.

It became clear right away that the shift from expectation of memory to invitation to imagination played to these residents' strengths. They saw it as a clarification of their role. They clearly understood that they were storytellers, and had value. Every single week we did the same thing, and it worked every time. I got a fellowship to replicate the program, and teach students and staff. That became TimeSlips.

AT: What research was available when you began your work in nursing homes that helped you imagine how using creative outlets might help older adults engage more productively in life?

AB: This was 1996; there was no research. When I did research to find interventions [to help older adults who were suffering with dementia], it just said 'be flexible. …

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