Smile Theatre is a charitable organization that facilitates live musical productions, performed by professional actors and vocalists, for seniors and vulnerable members of the community living in care, or being treated in hospital.
As of this year, the charity will have been producing life-affirming, interactive theatre shows for half a century and remains steadfast in its mission to bring joy to people who are often isolated due to their age, and or health.
Tom Carson, Smile Theatre’s executive director, reiterated the importance of universal access to the arts ahead of a show at Briton House, a retirement community centre in Midtown. “People experience loneliness and isolation in lots of different ways, especially in the seniors community,” he said, indicating the importance of bringing theatre to them.
In an ongoing effort to improve and invigorate its shows, Smile Theatre recently enlisted the expertise of Magdalena Schamberger, a director, and consultant who has been working creatively alongside people living with dementia for over 20 years.
Schamberger is an expert in curating physical theatre performances that are designed to be “enjoyable, stimulating and beautiful,“ according to her bio.
“We need to give people the greatest chance of being able to access as much as possible and as meaningfully as possible,” Schamberger told Now Toronto.
Schamberger operates under a school of thought beholden to the notion that actors and all staff working within a performance space are deeply attuned to the needs of an elderly, or partially compos mentis audience.
In order to serve the wide-ranging needs of the aforementioned demographic, Schamberger creatively directs in a manner that caters to varying levels of cognitive capability.
“In terms of the performances that I create, there is a mixture of rehearsed vignettes that have a storyline for those who can follow a storyline, and for the people who can’t, they are still able to appreciate the visual elements and the sound of music,” she said.
But the most important factor is that it opens the door to participation, and creates opportunities to “engage and be seen and be heard,” Schamberger continued.
Smile Theatre’s Fall production entitled “Harvest Harmonies,” created by Carson, with the assistance of the show’s performers and Schamberger, is a shining embodiment of said values.
The actors are gentle and kind in their approach towards Briton House’s residence, interacting with audience members with sweet serenades of timeless classics, like Elvis Presley’s “Blue Moon.”
One audience member, who enthusiastically introduced herself as Gail, was sitting front and centre, song sheet at the ready. The show was yet to begin, but her anticipation was palpable and almost childlike, it was a true joy to behold. “I’ve always participated in choruses and choirs and things like that, I love music” she told Now Toronto.
Schamberger has adopted the term “happy hangover,” to describe the feeling she sets out to create through her work with Smile Theatre and beyond.
“Personally, I think it is a human right to have access to the arts, and I think it’s our responsibility to create something that is suitable, meaningful and giving,” Schamberger said.
“Even if people don’t remember what has happened they still feel that something beautiful and positive has taken place,” she explained.
Smile Theatre and Schamberger’s overarching goal is to change the atmosphere for people in care whose access to cognitive and social stimulation is limited. The people Smile Theatre reach represent a portion of the population experiencing social isolation, but providing something beautiful, high quality and accessible can drastically improve their quality of life.
Moreover, brain stimulation is an effective method in counteracting the regressive nature of Dementia, a condition many of Smile Theatre’s audience members have, while it will not cure it, the stimulation performance art provides can usher in reprieve.
“When you have a form of Dementia, parts of your brain die off, but the plasticity of the brain makes it possible for another part of the brain to take over, and that is where the strength of all the artists lie and this is where we are able to become a bridge for people so we can accompany them to the other side, which they’re undoubtedly on the way to,” Schamberger concluded.
In addition to her work with Smile Theatre, Schamberger is a creative director of a project called Bold, which stands for bringing out leaders in dementia.
“It is a social leadership program using creative methods to enhance leadership skills among people who live with dementia, those who have a dementia diagnosis and those who work with them,” Schamberger said.
For further information on the work of Smile Theatre, including details on their performances, and artists click here.