Based on the bestselling novel by Lisa Genova, StillAlice tells the story of a clever and driven woman named Alice who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50.
I spoke to Sharon Small who is taking on the role of Alice in the UK Tour. After originating the role at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, she is excited about giving the play a new dynamic on tour.
“I feel like it’s my responsibility to get this part as accurate as possible and really look at what it would be like for Alice to be living in each of these moments,” she said. “The structure of the play helps that, it is very much in the present. There is no ‘poor me’ kind of feel about it. It’s about being present in each of her scenes and really portray the disease as it goes on.”
The West Yorkshire Playhouse are known for their pioneering work with dementia friendly performances and the show was first created as part of the ‘Every Third Minute Festival’ which is because every three minutes someone is diagnosed with dementia. “I met lots of people living with dementia,” Sharon explained. “In particular a lady called Wendy Mitchell, a writer who helped up with the show and came to quite a lot of the rehearsals. She helped us with the physicality of the decline of the disease, because it is more about the decline than just becoming a sick person.”
On this tour they are holding a serious of dementia Friendly performances where they adapt the performance to accommodate for an audience living with dementia. “It was so lovely when we did it before at the WYP. We met the audience afterwards and a man came up to me and said ‘I just loved it, I won’t remember it tomorrow but I really understood it and thank you,’ and that is why it is so important,” Sharon said.
Sharon did an immense amount of research into the disease in order to grasp a full understanding of how it effects people. “I watched lots of videos and they talk about how their brain changes and how things like if a door is closed, your brain forgets you can go through that door. It is very moving to watch people from all corners and walks of life struggle with not being able to trust their brain anymore,” she said. “When they get to a stage in their illness, it is easier for them but much harder for the family as they lose their sense of who they are or who they were.”
Sharon asked Wendy if she ever gets really furious that this happened to her, and Wendy explained how she doesn’t feel anger anymore and how she has lost the ability to feel angry and she was happy about that. “Wendy told me that there are some people that get absolutely furious and their anger becomes their default, so they become quite violent,” Sharon said. “We really explore that in this play as well, the different aspects that come out at different stages.”
There are a multitude of ways Alzheimer’s affects different people, but this production tells the story of Alice who has early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She is a Harvard Professor, 50 years old and in her prime of life. She is a very bright woman who thinks really fast so to lose the one thing that defines her is heart-breaking to deal with.
“When you get early-onset it is particularly aggressive and the cognitive decline is more enhanced,” Sharon explained. “People become written off by their workplace even though they technically can still do the job or change the way they do the job but they aren’t able to. Quite often society now isn’t able to cope with it so they shut it away.
“Hopefully something like this play will educate that and actually people with dementia are still people and can still do things, it is a bit harder but they can still live their life, especially as it becomes more prevalent. People living with this disease are still people. My research told me that even though you might forget faces, you know what you feel about that person.”
In this production they have another character called ‘Herself’ who is the voice in Alice’s head. “I found through speaking to people with dementia that it often happens, and they still have a strong consciousness that almost asking themselves why they’re not doing something,” she said. “This character Herself is my fantastic, raging, clever brain until we both start to unravel at slightly different times, I become very dependent on this voice.”
Asking Sharon what the main challenge has been taking on such a complex role she told me: “This is one particular story and it will incorporate different aspects about dementia and so it is not to say this is what dementia or living with dementia is, because it’s this particular story that we are telling.”
Alongside Still Alice being a really good night at the theatre, Sharon really hopes this play will raise awareness. “It isn’t something you can always see, it really is getting more prevalent and there aren’t many plays out there talking about dementia. It’s so important to have that conversation in order to get more research and understanding,” she said.