D-Generation: An exaltation of larks

By Jessica T. Gable

On a darkened stage in Chicago’s Columbia College Dance Center on Jan. 16, four lifelike puppets bound to tiny wheelchairs stared out across the sea of empty seats with a gaze that seemed too penetrating to come from something inanimate.

Their three handlers, Ines Zeller Bass, Eric Bass and Kirk Murphy, took their places behind their counterparts to begin rehearsal for D-Generation: An Exaltation of Larks, a show the Sandglass Theater brought from Putney, Vermont to Chicago as part of the city’s International Puppet Theater Festival. The show runs from Jan. 16-17.

Eric Bass holds a puppet aloft during a performance.
Eric Bass holds aloft a puppet in a segment about a woman with dementia who used to be a dancer. Though wheelchair-bound, in her mind she soars through the air.

Using puppets, audio and visuals, “D-Generation” offers a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of five people living with dementia. The actors and creators of the show strove to portray the creativity, imagination and the lively workings of their minds of those living with the disease.

“The subject of the play is not sadness,” puppeteer Eric Bass said. “The subject of the play is playing. The subject of the play is living in the moment.”

To collect material for the play, the team used a technique called “Timeslips,” an exercise that let real people with dementia contribute pieces of scenes for the play.

Kirk Murphy smiles as he manipulates a puppet.
Puppeteer Kirk Murphy smiles as he manipulates a puppet portraying Henry, a man with dementia who has a difficult time remembering family members but finds immense joy through painting.

The technique is portrayed in the show as a “story circle.” Each puppet in the circle represents a character with dementia. Their caregivers, played by the actors, give the puppets an image and ask them to come up with a story behind it. The team went to real nursing homes to gather those stories.

“It doesn’t demand memory at all,” Bass said. “It demands imagination.”

The show’s Chicago run ends Saturday, Jan. 17.