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Summer Edition
Volume 100, Number 1

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Theatre production Between 2 Chairs examines memory loss and development

The rules of theatrical improvisation guide one professor toward healing

Valerie Smith, associate professor of theatre
In her play, Between 2 Chairs, Valerie Rae Smith, associate professor of theatre and co-chair of the theatre department, relays the wonders of her son’s developing ability to tell stories, using his toys as characters. This small yellow chair represents her son throughout the layered narrative she wrote and performed.

The first rule of theatrical improvisation is to follow the setting your scene partner offers you: the where, who, why, how, and what of a scene. “If your scene partner opens a scene with, ‘Gee it’s really cold here on the moon! I wonder where we can find some shelter,’ you have to go with those given circumstances,” explains Valerie Rae Smith, associate professor and co-chair of the Department of Theatre at Messiah College.

That’s also the undergirding principle of the one-woman show Between 2 Chairs, authored and performed by Smith. The play, which has been performed at Touchstone Theatre in Bethlehem, Pa., as well as in local churches and colleges—including Messiah—examines her father’s deteriorating memory, due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the way her young son is gaining definitive memories. The script for the play will be published in the summer issue of The Johns Hopkins Memory Bulletin.


The technical aspects of Smith’s play, which she plans to refine further with the help of a professional director and audience feedback, drive home the haunting uncertainties of her position “zwishen den Stühlen sitzen,” as expressed in a German proverb that literally means “to sit between two chairs,” a turn of phrase often used to express frustration or even hopelessness over being caught between two sides of a personal or cultural difficulty. Using this metaphor as a base, Smith weaves together complicated technical elements and costume changes, including recorded interviews with her father and son— who are represented on stage by two chairs, a large wooden chair for her father and a small wooden child’s chair for her son—as well as projected video images as a backdrop for the set. Smith also presents the audience with factual knowledge about memory through her portrayals of historical figures including Jean Piaget (the Swiss developmental psychologist who first identified specific stages of childhood development) and Alois Alzheimer (who identified the disease named after him).

The thread holding all these elements together is Smith’s vulnerability in narrating her experience as she examines her feelings about her father’s condition, her fears of developing Alzheimer’s, and the wonders of her child’s developing memory. In her desire for her son to know his grandfather, Smith is drawn to forge new relationships in the common denominator of their realities: the present.

Smith’s father, who cannot remember why he climbed the stairs to put on his shoes, and Smith’s son, who cannot remember what he did in school that day, both enjoy ice-cream cones together in the last scene of the play. Their pleasure in the present moment reveals to her audiences what Smith realized—that she had, as she says, a choice “to either fight my father’s memory loss or discover what the experience required from me. My father is sometimes in another world and we no longer share memories of any family history. In order to engage him, I need to enter his reality.” It is her growing joy in experiencing the present with two disparate generations that allows Smith, though she fears forgetting, to bridge the difficult gap “between two chairs.”

—Mackenzie Martin ’08

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