Calgary filmmakers explore improvisational theatre for people living with dementia through their documentary, Garden Shark
Dawn Nagazina had been studying improvisational theatre, or improv, at Company of Rogues Actors Studio in Calgary for nine months when she learned about the benefit of improv for people living with dementia. While looking for more ways to get involved in the improv community in early 2019, she heard about the Alzheimer Society of Calgary and Inside Out Theatre’s Village Improv for Alzheimer’s program. The program, which began in 2014, is offered as part of Club 36, an adult day program at Bethany Harvest Hills and AgeCare Seton. Participants living with dementia engage in improv exercises with professionally trained improvisors.
“When I learned of people living with dementia doing improv, I was just instantly excited,” says Nagazina. “It’s a space where we get to celebrate our individuality and you get to fail forward, but it’s not really failing. Improv is about being in the present moment. And so, you don’t need memory.”
The Calgary-based filmmaker and actor says the concept immediately resonated with her, and she felt an urge to share it. That’s where the idea for Garden Shark — a documentary exploring first-person accounts of the benefits of improv for people living with dementia — was born.
Garden Shark shows the effectiveness of improv, both as a recreational activity and communication tool, by following participants in the Village Improv for Alzheimer’s program .
Unscripted and spontaneous, improvisational theatre as dementia care comes from a simple baseline — exercises rely on being in the moment, taking part and always trying to say, “Yes, and…”. There are no wrong answers and the environment is usually light, supportive and, more often than not, filled with laughter.
Even the film’s name comes from the freewheeling imagination that thrives in the practice. Nagazina explains in her pitch video that in improv, “if I want sharks in my garden, then I’m going to have sharks in my garden.”
“It’s just about giving people tools for communication, which everybody needs all the time every day, but it becomes more imperative when certain forms of communication become harder,” explains Garden Shark’s director Anna Cooley, who joined the team shortly after the project received funding through Telus Storyhive’s documentary competition in summer 2019.
Garden Shark was one of 30 Alberta and B.C. documentaries to be funded through Telus’s annual competition. Winners are determined by a public voting period — like Garden Shark was — or by a jury of Storyhive team members and industry professionals. Nagazina, who previously worked as a professional engineer, says the widespread support in voting represented something of a collision of worlds.
“It was the first time I was asking for a lot of people in my creative world and my previous corporate world downtown to support this endeavor,” says Nagazina. “The result was incredible.”
For Cooley, whose grandmother lived with dementia for 10 years, the movie’s focus resonated. She recalls her grandmother living particularly well with dementia, and, after hearing about the concept, she realized much of her family’s communication with her grandmother echoed the methods in improv.
“I voted for this project every day that it was up because I knew the value of it,” says Cooley. “Then I was thrilled when, a few weeks later, I was asked to direct the film.”
In January 2020, a second push was made on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to host a free class for caregivers to learn improv skills along with people living with dementia. After a successful campaign, which garnered close to $10,000, the reactions of participants who took the free class, both caregivers and people living with dementia, became a centerpiece of the film, showing and teaching improv’s benefits.
Now nearing completion, the team is looking to screen the doc at film festivals in Calgary and beyond. Following the festival circuit, they hope Garden Shark finds its way into medical schools and other training programs, as well as to those recently diagnosed with dementia.
“To show people living well, I think gives hope to both them and the people caring for them,” says Cooley.
Garden Shark will premiere fall 2020 and will be available on YouTube and Telus OptiK TV. [ ]