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Creativity, Aging, and Alzheimer’s

A Conversation with Michelle Memran

In a fierce and tender new documentary called The Rest I Make Up, filmmaker Michelle Memran asks legendary playwright María Irene Fornés what her definition of “artist” is. Irene (as she prefers to be called) pauses and looks out the window. “An artist,” she says, “is made up of two: one who goes in, and another who goes out. The one who goes in, goes in through observation. And in some mysterious way then transforms it to produce a breeze…a thought…a poem.”

But what if the transformation halts? When the artist is compromised via aging or sickness—when she can still “go in,” but can no longer “go out” to make the breeze, the poem, the artwork—is she still an artist? Aging and Alzheimer’s disease are not topics people like to talk about in general, particularly as it pertains to the theatre community, but the question remains: What happens to a creative artist when she stops being able to create in the same way she’s done for years? When she “ages out” of productivity? It’s a horrible phrase, but it makes a point: we live in a market-driven economy, and our creative work is commodified along with everything else. How we may feel about that fact asserts that our value—according to our social contract—is tied to our marketability. So what happens when we stop putting out “sellable” wares? What happens to a playwright when her means to create is compromised through Alzheimer’s? Does her creativity disappear along with it? Does she disappear herself?

What happens to a creative artist when she stops being able to create in the same way she's done for years? —Katie Pearl

I put these questions to journalist and film director Michelle Memran, who spent over a decade with Irene Fornés—one of our most fearless, poetic, and active playwrights living today. Irene wrote over forty plays, won nine OBIE Awards, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, helped establish the Off-Off Broadway movement, founded INTAR Theatre’s Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Lab, and taught and mentored scores of playwrights around the globe. As Paula Vogel remarks in Michelle’s documentary about Irene, “she never stopped. She just went onto the next play. And then she just went onto the next one. And the next one. There was no excuse in her life, it seemed to me, for not going forward.” Yet at a certain point, Irene did stop going forward. She stopped writing and stopped getting requests for teaching. She rarely left her West Village apartment. This is when Michelle first encountered her.

It was 1999. Michelle was a young journalist with dreams of writing plays. She was working on an article called “Measure for Measure” in American Theatre magazine’s “Understanding Critics” section, later published in 2001, about playwrights and critics, and dared to call up her favorite playwright. To Michelle’s utter shock, Irene agreed to meet her for lunch. They sat together for six hours that day, and as Michelle often says, “Irene talked about everything, but playwrights and critics.” But at the end of that lunch, a friendship had begun.

As Michelle and Irene’s friendship deepened in the following years, it became clear to Michelle that Irene had stopped writing and working due to encroaching dementia. One day, almost by accident, the two discovered that a video camera could be an exciting creative outlet for them both—and that it inspired a new kind of creative writing for Irene. “The lens is your pen,” Michelle told her. So over the next decade, Michelle, Irene, and the video camera spent an extraordinary amount of time together, following Irene as she moved through the world in her own delightful, eternal present. As her short-term memory and capacities diminished, her playful interaction with the camera and her lively interest in the world never did. The result is a documentary that feels almost like a video diary: a surprising and intimate eighty minutes spent with an extraordinary playwright focusing on the years after she stopped writing. The film is an unusual and valuable catalyst towards reckoning with the realities of aging artists, and will go far in keeping Irene’s legacy vibrant for future generations of theatremakers.

Here is part of the conversation I had with Michelle about capability, creativity, and value. We discuss the ways working artists can support our artistic elders as they move into, as Michelle would have it, a “differently productive” phase of life.

two women posing for a photo
The pair on a trip to Seattle in 2005 for Irene to receive the TCG Theatre Practitioner of the Year award. Photo by Michael Smith.

Katie Pearl: Where do we start?

Michelle Memran: Well I think we start with recognizing that for someone who spent her whole life living for the theatre, that doesn’t go away when you can’t remember what happened ten minutes ago. For Irene, that feeling was in her bones. It was in the way she did everything. So the important question here is: how do we enhance that? How do we help that feeling come out, or stay out? When you’ve lost an ability that defines you, such as writing, or any kind of work, it doesn’t have to be artistic—any time you lose an ability that has pretty much defined your life—the question is: what brings you back to yourself? What helps you continue?

Katie: What does?

Michelle: Well of course it differs for everyone. But an undeniable part of the equation for everyone is that you need others. You need a community. You need at least one person to help you find what that thing is going be, that thing that will help you continue and give you reason to live, and then actually help you do it. With Irene, writing was her life, theatre was her life, directing was her life, and teaching was her life. So in one fell swoop with dementia, she lost the ability to do all those things…in a formal way. She was no longer being hired, she wasn’t being commissioned. But informally, her artistic capability was not necessarily diminished. She just couldn’t get it on the page in the same way she was used to doing. But she was still capable.

Katie: But what happens when an artist is still capable of expressing herself in the way you describe, but is no longer capable of creating “great work”? In the making of the film, you and Irene would sit down and write together. These exercises brought her back to a sense of herself as a playwright; the extemporaneous monologues she would speak into the camera are delightfully spontaneously structured. But she couldn’t take that next step of editing—thinking through and making choices within an intended form. So what does “capable” mean to you in this scenario?

Michelle: Well, it’s still the artistic mind. It’s still the artistic temperament. She’s capable of having artistic thoughts, of having artistic impulses, of having…a will to create something. Does she have the ability to sit down and write a play, edit, and direct it? And teach a room full of students? No. But she was still making, she was still teaching. She was teaching me how to live as an artist. So she’s still able to do the thing, but it’s not tangible in the same way. It looks different.

Katie: And it’s also unconscious. It’s unconscious teaching. You took it as teaching because you were interested in being taught. But she was just being herself. So does that count?

Michelle: It might count more. If it’s unconscious, it’s the deepest expression of self. But it’s certainly possible I’m projecting onto the scenario. I was a part of it, and I was hoping that what we were doing was actually a creative endeavor. I mean, that’s what it felt like. But I suppose whether or not it actually is, is up for debate.

Katie: Oh, I think it absolutely was a creative endeavor. One thing that interests me in this conversation about creativity, aging, and dementia is that as a creative community in this country, we’ve gotten used to tying the word “create” to a kind of monetary, or material output. Irene wasn’t creating this way when you met her, but she never really created that way. She had no use for critics; she wasn’t writing for them. She was creating for herself, and she was creating for audiences. And Irene was just writing “these messages that come”—something she said in a 1977 interview with Rob Creese for The Drama Review.

Michelle: What I did with Irene was the active endeavor. I would call her up, and she would say “Are we going to go work today?” That’s what she used to say to her friend Harry Koutoukas. “Are we going to go work today?” It meant: are we going to write? And they would write together.

I do think community is hugely vital to how you continue as an artist. For people who continue creating well up into their years, I often think they have a rich community around them. —Michelle Memran

Katie: And when she said that to you, did she mean: are you going to come with a camera?

Michelle: I have no idea. But yes, it meant to me: was I going to show up with the camera? It was very clear to her that we were doing something together. She may not have known my name all the time, but from moment to moment, when we were together, she knew exactly what we were doing.

Katie: There’s a great point at the end of the movie—not to give it away—when you ask her how you should end the film. And she says: “Has it started yet?”

Michelle: And other times she’d be like: “Oh, we’re making a movie about me!” It really depended on the day. Keep in mind this was still early stage dementia. So there was so much that she was capable of doing, wanted to do, lived to do, and loved to do. At first it was just a question of being a friend, which is always lovely. When the camera came into play and we began collaborating on something together, it created another dimension of our relationship; I think that was something she was craving too. I do think community is hugely vital to how you continue as an artist. For people who continue creating well up into their years, I often think they have a rich community around them.

Katie: So much of her life was spent in rehearsal rooms creating with other people. It must be really disconcerting to be totally lacking that part of yourself.

Michelle: Especially working in the theatre, you create such close bonds with each other. For whatever period of rehearsal and production, you are each other’s family. And that ends and you go thru post-partum, and then you move onto the next production. It’s always about relationships, good and bad. To go from having that constant interplay—and the teaching, too, you’re surrounded by students—to being more alone is exceptionally disorienting and painful.

Katie: It occurs to me that an advantage you and Irene had, in terms of bringing her back to herself, is that you fit into a lot of molds and models that were deep recognition for her. One of them is teacher/student; being with you allowed her to feel herself in this mode, and come back to herself that way. Whether it was unconscious or conscious.

There’s a part in the film where she says to you, “you’re always there, you’re always available. Like family, you know?” You respond, “I feel like we’re sisters, or something.” And she says, “sisters, or cousins, or partners…all kinds of possible different things. But all of them have to do with some kind of trust…”

Michelle: And that speaks to creative relationships, too—which are so trust-based. Irene was very open to me, and to it, and we were both excited about it.

As elders age, two things they have in abundance are time and the core elements of their personalities. There are younger people walking around who are the perfect fit for receiving those things. They just need to find each other. —Katie Pearl

Katie: There is a clear alchemy between the two of you, and I wonder if that was sparked in part by how what you needed matched what she had to give. There is an “abundance” mindset that is often referenced on HowlRound; Chantal Bilodeau talked about it in her article on Aristotle earlier this year, and I think it’s useful to call up in this conversation. When you think about someone’s “use” at the end of their life, the question can be: “What do they have in abundance that they can give? What are their capacities that still remain in abundance?” We don’t need to focus on what’s going away—

Michelle: —but rather on what remains. Exactly.

Katie: And to take it a step farther, if someone’s abundant capacities match someone else’s big need, then that’s the making of an amazing partnership. As elders age, two things they have in abundance are time and the core elements of their personalities. There are younger people walking around who are the perfect fit for receiving those things. They just need to find each other. 

Michelle: She did have a lot of people around her. There were a lot of people that admired her and would have loved to spend time with her.

Katie: Then what’s the difference? Why did you end up doing this thing that no one else did?

Michelle: Well…in many ways, maybe it’s because of the alchemy you brought up. Had we not clicked and become such good friends, I don’t know that the camera would have ever have come out of the bag. Would we ever have gone to Brighton Beach on that day? It all kind of happened as it happened. But we were friends first, and the camera work in the film is a by-product of that friendship. It was really a mutual thing. You know? I was creatively blocked and I didn’t know a way out of that. And she was helping me find a way out. Pulling that camera out of the bag was: we’re working. And it was working, for us both.

Katie: There is a “lost decade” that happens to people with Alzheimer’s: they show signs of the disease, they disappear from public view, then you hear ten years later that someone died. Irene is alive and living at Amsterdam Nursing Home in Manhattan, but people are continually surprised to learn she's still living. 

Michelle: That time period is very interesting to me because I feel like it’s a time where…you go into a nursing home, a rehab facility, or a hospital. It doesn’t mean you’re dead. It means you’ve entered another phase of your life. It doesn’t mean you’re not who you are. It doesn’t mean you can’t still be creative, have relationships, or be a human being. But if you are going to work in the way I did with Irene, I think there is a line you draw with dignity, and respecting someone’s boundaries—respecting where they’re at. With Irene, she wanted to go there. With another person, that’s the last thing they’d want to do.

Katie: In terms of dignity, the project ended when Irene stopped being able to respond to the camera, when she stopped recognizing or noticing that it was there.

Michelle: You’ll see it throughout the film, she’s entirely consensual. We talk about it. But there’s a certain point when she didn’t recognize the act of being filmed, so we had to stop.

Katie: And that’s true dramaturgically speaking as well—the film really follows her lead. So when she’s no longer able to lead, the dramaturgy ends.

Michelle: That’s another way to think about the capacities someone has in abundance: Where is this person still able to lead? And then the follow up is: Who can be there to follow?

The Rest I Make Up is in its final days of a successful Kickstarter Campaign! To see the film's trailer and add your support, click here.  After Oct 26, you can find us as a sponsored project at Women Make Movies.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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This is beautiful, Katie. I cannot wait to experience Michelle's film. Maria Irene Fornes is a writing hero for so many of us. Reading about this time in her life is a privilege for all of us -- I'm grateful your essay leads us to think about and celebrate Irene's past AND present life.

This is a lovely article and your experience with Maria Irene Fornes is very, very special.
I would hesitate to lump aging in with Alzheimer's or any other kind of dementia. The idea that we all just naturally go from being productive to aging out of productivity into a space of illness feeds into society's penchant for ageism and the view that after a certain age we are of no marketable use. I call attention to DG's latest edition of The Dramatist which has a focus on age because age is a real issue with playwrights who want their work to be treated as vital despite the dates on their resume. That said, I enjoyed reading about your very unique relationship with Fornes.

Jean, thanks so much for this critique-- it's such an important distinction to make, and not one that we've had to think about as we've been so focused on Irene's personal experience. I look forward to checking out the The Dramatist and reading the articles there, I appreciate you drawing our attention to it.

This is beautiful. I have been talking about Maria Irene Fornes, her work and her life in my classes for years. I cannot wait to see this documentary. Thank you for this!

I can't wait to see the film, and Katie, this is a beautiful article. You write, "When you think about someone’s “use” at the end of their life, the question can be: “What do they have in abundance that they can give? What are their capacities that still remain in abundance?” We don’t need to focus on what’s going away—

Michelle: —but rather on what remains. Exactly."

I was thinking-- It's great if we have a wealth to offer in the rehearsal room or classroom until the very end, but speaking for myself, I have no idea what will be left of me by then. Maybe there's a shift of focus possible here. Perhaps, instead of the idea of "use" near the end, we could think of artists as having a life-cycle that includes a time of "use" or "direct contribution" and a time of "reception/reflection", in which other artists practice the vital skill of nurturing those that came before, along with reflecting on how they've been influenced by them.

That is what this film and Michelle seem to do: Michelle seems to be engaged in honoring Irene on Irene's own terms-- creative terms--regardless of the "value" or cohesion or "quality" the creative efforts would hold in our commodified world. Michelle is using this time of her creative life to honor and explore Irene's entire creative life. That's what's so powerful about it to me-- and maybe a great model for the future.

Hi Molly, I love this supposition! Thanks for pushing my thinking farther. I think that's a really clear way of expressing what I was trying to get at... and I note that even the word 'use' is tied to output... and it is deeply useful also to receive/reflect, in part because of the opportunity it allows others who are different stages of their life cycle to activate parts of themselves that will enable them to grow and deepen. I love imagining a whole life cycle of an artist, and allowing it to move from 'input/learning' to 'output/production' to 'reception/reflection' in an arc (that of course loops back on itself many times and contains many other things as well).

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