Musical theatre serves as therapy at Burnaby's New Vista Care Home

Joyce Joh, Terry Monteforte, Lloyd Fraser and Karen Szabo work on a musical number in the New Vista Care Home
Joyce Joh, Terry Monteforte, Lloyd Fraser and Karen Szabo work on a musical number in the New Vista Care Home's production of Oklahoma!

When music therapist Kristine Theurer started working at Burnaby’s New Vista Care Home seven years ago, it didn’t take long for her to notice it: the residents love to perform.

“I just realized every time they have an opportunity to get up on stage, they shine,” said Theurer.

It wasn’t long before residents were staging annual musicals for their friends, families and fellow residents.

The feat is all the more impressive when Theurer points out that about 70 per cent of New Vista’s residents have a cognitive impairment.

“Most are not able to memorize lines, they wouldn’t remember when and where to get on and off the stage or remember lyrics,” she said.

With that in mind, Theurer and her staff manage to create a show that works around all these challenges.

Script gets adapted

“We call it the No Talent Required Talent Show,” Theurer said with a laugh. “There are no auditions. Anyone that wants to be involved in any way gets a part.”

Usually the residents decide which musical they’d like to produce. This year’s show, on Sept. 27, is Oklahoma!. Then each participating resident chooses what part they want and Theurer adapts the script to fit. The scripts usually get whittled down from two hours to less than one hour, keeping as much of the original dialogue as possible and all the songs.

Amazingly, while residents may have trouble remembering lines, the same isn’t true for the lyrics.

“They may not be able to read lyrics but they know the songs,” she said. “As soon as the music starts, everyone is singing.”

The choreography is also adapted, to accommodate people using walkers and the like. And residents, staff and family all chip in to help create costumes and scenery.

The key is inclusivity. One woman is in charge of the sound effects, happily wielding a rain stick or thunder-making device on cue.

A male resident who’s unable to remember his cues plays a drunk with the help of Theurer who, like other staff members, is dressed all in black to signify they’re supposed to be invisible.

She puts an empty wine bottle in the man’s hand and accompanies him on stage with her own bottle, playing a drunkard herself.

“He mimics me and we play the drunk part together, arm in arm.”

As with the singing, the residents don’t always need help, she said.

“When it comes time to take a bow, they all know exactly what to do.”

Very therapeutic

Theurer said the musical productions are “tremendously therapeutic” for the residents.

It gives them a chance to reminisce, be creative, increase their sense of belonging and self-worth and to exercise their brains.

After they staged Mary Poppins last year, one male resident talked about it for at least six months afterward, she said.

“Anytime anyone asked him how he was he would talk about his role in the play, the standing ovation and how proud he was of it.”

And throughout the rehearsal process, people in every nook and cranny of the care home can be found singing the songs of the shows.

Lately there’s been many a rendition of Oh What a Beautiful Mornin in the corridors, as well as refrains of “Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry, When I take you out in the surrey...”

For Terry Monteforte, 63, who plays “Jude,” it’s been another good reason for him to sing throughout the day. Oklahoma happens to be one of his favourites which he’s watched dozens of times.

The show’s narrator, Lloyd Fraser—who is “87 or 88, somewhere in there”—said he was “flattered” to be asked to join in and that the show had created a buzz of excitement among participants.

Rose Quinn, 83, is a relative newcomer to New Vista, having moved there about three months ago. She was recruited as one of the dancers, and will have her walker in tow.

It’s been a good way to socialize and meet her fellow residents, she said.

Quinn added with a laugh, “My kids said they’re going to come see Oklahoma! When I said, why, they said, ‘Well you came to see our plays, we’re going to come see yours.’ ”

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