An award-winning Adelaide play promoting a deeper, more empathetic understanding of persons living with dementia is back for an encore round of performances across South Australia.
Returning to the Adelaide Fringe Festival 2023 from March 7-19, The Fishbowl is a one-hour experimental theatre performance that incorporates acted portrayals of real-life aged care residents, overlaid with audio contributions from aged care experts, workers and those with lived experience of dementia.
Exploring themes of communication, ageing, and identity, and using the metaphor of a fishbowl to represent the voyeuristic, circular nature of daily life in aged care, the play celebrates the many rich characters to be found in aged care and the wisdom they can impart.
Matthew Barker, actor, aged care worker and writer of The Fishbowl, tells Aged Care News that his play was inspired by his own personal diary entries from 2016, when he was two years into working at an Adelaide-based memory support unit, dubbed ‘The Fishbowl’.
“I did these diary entries just to keep myself sane and to just pick out moments of beautiful, profound things that happened in the memory unit,” Barker says.
“They were things that made me think, ‘God, I wish I could share this moment that I’m having with this person right now, because I think it would help people understand people with dementia so much more’.”
As Barker told Aged Care News last August, the goal of the play is to inspire more thoughtful, empathic communication and connection with those living with the condition.
“It depicts the heart-breaking miscommunication which happens so often with people with dementia, as well as the lovely moments of properly listening and gleaning wisdom from the people we are working for.”
The play was celebrated with critical acclaim last year, receiving the BankSA Award for Best Theatre and Physical Theatre and the Holden Street Theatres Award at the Adelaide Fringe Festival 2022.
Nonetheless, Barker and his team, which includes actor Evie Leonard and director/ producer Steph Daughtry, have been continuously striving to improve the play further, incorporating audience feedback — taken from Q&A sessions after last year’s performances — to develop a piece of art that is as resonant and accurate as possible.
“People shared their stories about their own loved ones being in aged care, and it was quite a beautiful experience to be able to sit there and kind of nut things out together,” Barker says.
New audio has been added to the 2023 iteration of the play, comprising interview material from experts such as Dr Tim Sargeant, head of lysosomal ageing at SAHMRI; Ann Pietsch, Adelaide-local and advocate with Dementia Australia, and numerous other aged care workers and family members of those with lived experience of dementia.
“I think it adds to the gravity of the performance, that this is a real place, and these are real people,” Barker says.
He says he’s been overwhelmed by the immense support and encouragement received by his local community throughout the play’s development process and performance seasons.
“It’s been quite an emotional experience and I’ve received nothing but support from everyone who’s come and seen it, which is quite touching,” Barker says.
Unfortunately, most of the residents depicted in the play have passed away, but their families have cherished the play as a priceless homage to their loved ones memories and wisdom.
“One of the main people featured is a woman who passed away four years ago, and her family came from Melbourne to see the play,” Barker says.
“She was an extraordinary lady, and it was quite a strange and emotional thing to be able to perform, as this lady, in front of her family.
“They were so generous, and they came with artworks to give us based on who their mother was and they all stayed back and lined up and we gave each other a hug at the end of the play — it was quite lovely.”
For Barker, who struggled alongside aged care workers nationwide through the chronic workforce crisis and COVID pandemic, working in aged care has not always been easy.
But in creating The Fishbowl, and exploring new, creative ways to advocate for improved care quality, his passion for working in the sector has been reinvigorated to a whole new level.
“I was quite exhausted… and I checked in with myself, [asking], ‘do I want to become another person in aged care that’s really jaded and frustrated with the system… and what do I do about it?
“I think the play has helped me to be able to feel more passionate about my job and just have a bit of a reset and to reflect on some of the wonderful experiences that I’ve had.
“[These days] I’m doing maybe half as much aged care work as I used to do, but I still love it, and I feel refreshed and passionate when I go in.”
Apart from the Adelaide Fringe Festival, The Fishbowl will also be staged at the SALT Festival, Port Lincoln, on April 25 and 26, as well as some other areas of regional South Australia that are yet to be announced.
After this, Barker is hoping for a nationwide rollout, as well as potential international premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.