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University of Minnesota

A new lens on Alzheimer's

June 18, 2009

Bob Rosen plays the main character in My Father's Bookshelf.

"My Father's Bookshelf" follows the story of a man (played by Bob Rosen) who is trying to negotiate the latter stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Photo by Mike Neuharth, courtesy Guthrie Theater

Innovative production at the Guthrie draws on expertise from U researchers

By Rick Moore

The latest production from Live Action Set, a Twin Cities-based performance company, tackles the weighty topic of Alzheimer's disease in a unique manner. Its "tragic comedy" My Father's Bookshelf, which opened at the Guthrie Theater June 18, examines the life of a man suffering from Alzheimer's and the collective response to the disease from his family and society.

But My Father's Bookshelf goes beyond strictly artistic interpretation. The company worked with the local Alzheimer's community, including researchers from the University of Minnesota, to develop a performance piece that educates as much as it entertains.

"All of the work that we do is collaborative," says Galen Treuer, co-director of My Father's Bookshelf and a founding member of Live Action Set. "We've been able to get information in an in-depth way from a number of different communities and perspectives."

That includes the University of Minnesota. As Treuer was diving into his research on the topic, he contacted researchers at the University, who have been pioneers in research on the disease that affects about 5 million Americans.

Treuer initially spoke with Karen Ashe, who gave him an overview of Alzheimer's. In 2006 Ashe received a Potamkin Prize (often called the "Nobel Prize in neurology") for research in Alzheimer's from the American Academy of Neurology. He then met with U researcher Kathleen Zahs, who shared lectures she had given "and talked me through the science," he says. The U researchers "pointed me to resources and explained their thoughts on the disease," he adds. "I used their experience in explaining the disease to people."

Ashe also steered Treuer to the Wayne Caron Family Caregiving Center on campus, where he was able to learn more about Alzheimer's from the family standpoint, even attending weekly Saturday meetings for caregivers. "They were really open, and we learned a lot of information from them," including how to treat the disease on a family level, Treuer says. "That was extremely helpful."

From there, Live Action Set developed a production that promises to be educational, emotional, and thought provoking. My Father's Bookshelf follows the reality of an affable man (played by Theatre de la Jeune Lune co-founder Bob Rosen) who negotiates life with the disease. "It's primarily from his perspective—from what we're imagining he would see," Treuer says.

"This show isn't just about Alzheimer's; it's about aging," says Treuer. And "Alzheimer's is really acute aging.... It's also something that a lot of people deal with."

Interspersed with the storyline is a lecture on Alzheimer's delivered in segments by a neuroscientist (played by Live Action Set artistic director Megan Odell), with background PowerPoint slides conveying supporting images. "I feel like the lecture is important to convey information and the way that we deal with the disease," Treuer says.

The set is centered around 10 moving refrigerators, which are both literal—the kitchen is a central part of the family, Treuer notes—and a vehicle into the imagination. "It allows us to move around abstractly, but we're using really concrete, recognizable objects," he says.

Fellow Live Action Set artistic director Noah Bremer co-directs the show with Treuer, and the cast includes Jeune Lune co-founder Barbara Berlovitz, Four Humors artistic director Jason Ballweber, and Argentinean actor Dario Tangelson. The script was developed by Duluth writers Margi Preus and Jean Sramek.

"This show isn't just about Alzheimer's; it's about aging," says Treuer. And "Alzheimer's is really acute aging.... It's also something that a lot of people deal with."

To help audience members address their own thoughts and emotions about the topic, discussions will be offered after most of the performances with the actors and/or members of the Alzheimer's community. Visit the Guthrie Theater site to learn more about the post-show discussions.

My Father's Bookshelf runs from June 18 to 28 at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio. Tickets are $18 to $34. For more information, visit the Guthrie Theater.


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