Theater Artist Anne Basting Named MacArthur Fellow NPR's Kelly McEvers interviews Anne Basting, a theater artist and educator at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, about being awarded the MacArthur fellowship this year. She describes her work with people with cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer's and dementia, using improv theater and storytelling techniques to improve their lives.
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Theater Artist Anne Basting Named MacArthur Fellow

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Theater Artist Anne Basting Named MacArthur Fellow

Theater Artist Anne Basting Named MacArthur Fellow

Theater Artist Anne Basting Named MacArthur Fellow

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NPR's Kelly McEvers interviews Anne Basting, a theater artist and educator at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, about being awarded the MacArthur fellowship this year. She describes her work with people with cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer's and dementia, using improv theater and storytelling techniques to improve their lives.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

People with Alzheimer's disease or dementia might not be able to remember their own stories, but they can still make new ones. Anne Basting recognized that 20 years ago when she was volunteering at a nursing home, and she tried to get residents to do improv games. For weeks she got silence, so she tried something different.

ANNE BASTING: I tore a picture of the Marlboro man out of a magazine and just said, tell me what you want to call this guy. And someone said Fred. And I said, Fred who? And they said Fred Astaire. And then a 45-minute story unraveled. And we were laughing and singing, and it was a completely transformative moment. It felt like a miracle.

MCEVERS: Artist and educator Anne Basting is one of this year's recipients of a genius grant, a MacArthur Foundation fellow that take theirs from the foundation's website. And we are lucky to have Anne Basting here with us. Welcome to the show.

BASTING: Thank you so much. It's a treat to be here.

MCEVERS: So what was the rest of that 45-minute story like? I mean what happened to Fred Astaire?

BASTING: (Laughter) Spoiler alert.

(LAUGHTER)

BASTING: The opening question of course was, what do you want to call him? And that's the whole shift - is giving people access to creativity. There's no right or wrong answer. So what do you want to call him - Fred. Fred who - Fred Astaire. Where does Fred live? Where do you want him to live? And someone said Oklahoma.

And then somebody lifted up their head and started singing, (singing) Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plains. And it just caught from there. And any time the energy kind of slowed and you could feel people losing track, I would just repeat what they had said. And we'd sing again. And then another wave of creativity would follow.

MCEVERS: And so did you know you were onto something right at that moment? Were you like, aha, yes? And then the next day, did you start to kind of build things around that?

BASTING: It really did feel like a threshold moment. And I went back every week after that and did the same thing, just brought in a different picture and tried the same approach. And it worked every single time.

MCEVERS: And then of course you created a project called TimeSlips Creative Storytelling. It's this way of teaching that grew from that. And you'll see it's backed by research. I mean what do we know about how a cue like a picture in a magazine can inspire creativity in people with Alzheimer's and dementia?

BASTING: I've - if you think about it this way, the thing that is fragile with people living with symptoms of dementia is certain pathways in the brain might not be allowing you access to certain words. Rational language, the ordering of sentences, the ordering of time - that's what's broken.

And if you shift over to symbolic, emotional communication, it's all there. You just have to open up the rules so people can access and express what strengths they have instead of going to the loss and asking them to communicate with you out of loss.

MCEVERS: So this approach obviously helps people who have dementia. But what about caregivers and family members? I mean do you think it helps change the perception of older people in this country?

BASTING: Changing the perception of the way we see and experience aging is the impulse at the bottom of all of my work. To shift the way we see aging - and we have traditionally seen it as an increasing rigidity and a decline, an accumulation of almost overwhelming losses - and instead to look at it as the coinciding of loss and growth at the same time.

MCEVERS: So what does getting this award mean to you?

BASTING: Getting this award - I've had to balance a lot of different things in order to make all this work, and at the end of the day, I think this award is going to allow me to say, this is what I want to develop. It needs to be poured into the water of our care system.

Creative engagement, as I call it is, in my mind, the most effective way to communicate with and connect with people in the state of dementia. And we need it to infiltrate the entire field, from everyday frontline caregivers to family to the care systems. It just needs to go everywhere. And it's going to free me up to be able to do that.

MCEVERS: Well, Anne Basting, congratulations, and thanks for being here.

BASTING: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: Anne Basting is one of this year's recipients of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. It comes with a $625,000 award. Her TimeSlips program has certified trainers in 12 countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OKLAHOMA!")

RODGERS AND HAMMERSTEIN: (Singing) Oklahoma where the wind comes sweeping down the plains.

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