While there is always a bit of magic that surrounds the theater, sometimes a production can take on a greater meaning.
Students in Brookville High School’s Advanced Acting class learned this while rehearsing “Stroke Static,” the competition piece they will present to the community on Tuesday ahead of this year’s Virginia Theatre Association Conference.
“I love how we get to do all these things for the community and with the community,” says junior Jessie Blanks. “To really get involved, and realize that this isn’t something that’s school specific, and it’s not something that’s specific to our program or our lives.”
A one-act written by Lindsay Price, “Stroke Static” delivers an emotional portrayal of dementia, taking us inside the mind of Russ (played by junior Nick Sahadak), an 83-year-old nursing home resident struggling with the disease.
“He’s battling between the present and then also his past,” says Megan Emanuel, director of Brookville’s theater program. “It shows how it affects those that are around him.”
Emanuel knows the challenges families face when a loved one is diagnosed with dementia. Her grandmother had the disease when she died in 2001.
“I watched my mom as a caretaker,” says Emanuel. “... So it was part of my reality for several years when I was a teenager.”
She’s not the only one. According to the World Health Organization, 50 million people are living with dementia, the overall term given to diseases characterized by a decline in cognitive function.
In the U.S. alone, 5.8 million adults have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia.
Because of the prevalence of dementia, Emanuel felt the story at the heart of “Stroke Static” was one her students could connect with while also providing them with a challenge.
“As a teenager having to play an 80-, 90-year-old person, that’s tough,” says Emanuel. “It’ll push them.”
To help her students gain a better understanding about how dementia affects individuals, Emanuel took the class to Heritage Green Assisted Living and Memory Care, where they spent time decorating pumpkins with the residents.
“It definitely added such another element to it,” says senior Lydia Price, who plays Russ’ caretaker, Carmel. “I was actually able to talk to the nurses at the facility and be able to know what they wear, what their day is like, how they react when a patient loses control.”
Visiting Heritage Green proved so meaningful that Emanuel and her students are planning a second trip, even though they will be finished with “Stroke Static” by then.
“We definitely want to go back and be able to love on them some more,” says Price, “spend more time with them, get to know them better, get to know them as [people] rather than it being, ‘Oh, this is a class trip.’”
The majority of the cast also participated in this year’s Lynchburg Walk to End Alzheimer’s on Oct. 12, which was attended by about 600 people.
“Just going there and seeing all those people, and all the different colored flowers [which represent their connection to the disease] that people were holding was just very inspiring and humbling,” says Blanks, whose grandmother suffers from Alzheimer’s and now lives with her family.
Tying community service to working on “Stroke Static” has brought a different kind of energy to her class and made them think in a different way, says Emanuel.
She hopes this empathy and awareness continues even after their run at VTA.
“Yeah, at the end of the day, we’d love to win,” says Emanuel, “but if we don’t, look how much they’ve learned and how much good they’ve done.”