Behind the Mask

WP Puppet Theatre brings a mask-making workshop to people living with dementia

 Photos by Arun Chaturvedi, courtesy WP Puppet Theatre

Photos by Arun Chaturvedi, courtesy WP Puppet Theatre

When the team from WP Puppet Theatre first walked through the doors of Club 36 — an Adult Day Program operated by the Alzheimer Society of Calgary — last fall, they came bearing a strange gift: a box full of plain white masks. The masks didn’t stay plain for long. They were soon transformed by members of the Club’s day program, who adorned them with vivid colours, family photos, mementos and even a few butterfly stickers. 

It was the first time the puppetry-infused workshop, dubbed View from the Inside: Courage Journey, took its mission to people living with dementia. According to Wendy Passmore-Godfrey, founder of the WP Puppet Theatre, the workshop’s goal is to support mental wellness by giving people the chance to create masks that reflect themselves.

“The [masks] are a springboard to conversation,” says Passmore-Godfrey, who explains that each mask communicates on multiple levels by using symbols and metaphors. The front is painted to show the face the individual presents to the world, while the inside collage reflects the inner self with photographs and personal imagery. Attachments also hang by strings off the mask’s sides to show the person’s attachment to their past and community. 

“It’s about self-reflection, where you dig deep into colours and the memories associated,” says Passmore-Godfrey. “That self-realization is a big thing for people, because you’re looking back on your life and deciding what are the most important pieces in your history.”

Subconsciously, the [masks] become self-portraits.
— Wendy Passmore-Godfrey

Last fall, the workshop at Club 36 connected nursing students at the University of Calgary with people living with dementia to create art. Third-year nursing student Sydney Flodstedt was there for all six sessions of the program.

She spent the semester working one-on-one with a woman who was advanced in her dementia diagnosis, so she couldn’t ask many specific questions about her past. However, on the first day of the View from the Inside workshop, Flodstedt noticed that her partner was drawn to blue and green paints, which allowed the duo to delve into a conversation.

“As she gravitated toward those colours, I asked her questions like, ‘Do you like being outside?’” recalls Flodstedt. “That’s how I started to learn about her past, like how she loved to garden and grew up close to a lake. Honestly, it was the colours that brought everything out in her, and it let her lead me and reflect her life in the mask.”

Flodstedt adds that her experience with the WP Puppet Theatre was her first time interacting with people with dementia, and she found it “invaluable.” 

“It’s about seeing that these people can still tell their life stories, and their diagnosis of dementia doesn’t define them,” she says. “They are more than their diagnosis.”

By the end of the six weeks at Club 36, Passmore-Godfrey was so fascinated by the diversities between the masks that she held an experiment by asking staff members to guess which participant made which mask.

“Just by looking at them, they guessed most of the creators’ identities correctly,” Passmore-Godfrey says. “What struck me, and what continues to strike me, was how much the project matched the person. Subconsciously, the [masks] become self-portraits.”

She adds: “It’s about not forcing someone with dementia to remember things, but having them react to a moment and show what they’re thinking. There are prompts, like a family photo, but it lets the person have a choice on whether or not they connect to it.
The main thing is to make them feel honoured and respected.”  [ ]