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‘Nature of Forgetting’ at UM on Friday

  • “The Nature of Forgetting,” a physical theater production by London-based Theatre Re, comes to the UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center on Friday. COURTESY PHOTO


Tuesday, October 30, 2018

By CHRIS GOUDREAU

Staff Writer

If memories are windows to the mind, what happens when memories are fractured and scattered? That’s one question posed in “The Nature of Forgetting,” a production that follows a man named Tom with early onset dementia as his family celebrates his 55th birthday, which comes to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Fine Arts Center’s on Friday. 

“The Nature of Forgetting,” presented by London-based Theatre Re, is a mostly silent physical theater piece in which the actors use facial expressions and body language to convey their thoughts and feelings; live musical accompaniment adds to a rich texture of emotions. However, the mostly silent play isn’t steeped in melancholy: The central theme is about celebrating life.

Guillaumo Pigè, director of “The Nature of Forgetting,” who also plays the character of Tom, said during a recent phone interview that Theatre Re is composed of four co-artists who work collaboratively as a team. The troupe’s work typically starts with a question, Pigè said.

“I was interested in exploring memory … It became more and more obvious that forgetting was more exciting to explore,” he said. “And the  question that became very central to the development of the work became very quickly ‘What is left of an individual when memory is gone? What makes someone have a life worth living even though they’re losing their memory?’ ” 

Pigè founded Theatre Re in London in 2009 with a central mission of creating thought-provoking and poignant theatrical works. The company has presented six different plays thus far, all of which have toured internationally. Pigè trained as an actor and mime in France before moving to London in 2007, where he received a masters degree at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. 

Pigè said that during the development process for “The Nature of Forgetting,” members of his company interviewed dementia patients and asked them about songs linked to their memories.

“The show is not anyone’s story, it’s a story we’ve invented,” he said. “But when you do that work, you discover a lot of connections between music and memory and how certain memories do come back very often for most people.”

The production will explore the entirety of Tom’s life up until his 55th birthday, with memories serving as way for the character to explore his past, Pigè said.

Childhood memory is also a central element in the production, Pigè said; he noted that long-term memory is the last thing dementia patients start losing as their illness progresses.

“Your first kiss or your first day at school will stay with you for much longer,” he said. “And so, we use that. In the show, you’ll see a lot of long-term memory that little by little will fade away.”

The show is almost akin to a concert. There is no spoken text throughout the piece; instead, the music, composed by Alex Judd, helps guide Tom on his journey. Judd performs on keyboards and violin and is accompanied on percussion by Chris Jones. A video trailer for the production on YouTube features bombastic drum tracks, frantic and full of energy, that contrast with quiet, yet emotionally resonant violin and piano-driven pieces. 

“It is quite rich in terms of sound,” Pigè said. “All the sounds that you’ll hear onstage are created live. So, in the same way that we’re constructing and deconstructing Tom’s life visually, we’re also constructing and deconstructing his life through sound.”

“The Nature of Forgetting” is not the only event at UMass next week related to memory and forgetting. From Oct. 29 to Nov. 2, the Department of Neurosciences, the Fine Arts Center, the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies, and faculty in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese studies are hosting several interdisciplinary events on the topic of memory.

The “UMass Week of Memory and Forgetting” includes a discussion on “Memory Research in the 21st century” today.

Paul Katz, a professor and director of neurosciences at the university, said he teaches his students that “memory is not about the past, it’s about the future.”

“It guides an animal’s behavior,” he said. “The whole reason for having memory is to change your future behavior. It’s not to reflect upon the past, it’s to guide the future. You don’t realize that at first, but it’s exactly what it does. It’s like Rafiki in ‘The Lion King.’ ”

After the performance of “The Nature of Forgetting,” a member of the UMass Neurosciences Department will host a Q & A with audience members to discuss what the performance meant in respect to the physical nature of memory, Katz said.

Aaron Shackelford, director of programming at the Fine Arts Center, said he experienced a range of feelings, from sadness to tension to joy, when he saw a past performance of “The Nature of Forgetting.”

“To go through such a range of emotions in this incredible production and walk out with tears in your eyes — that, as a curator, is one of the more special experiences you can have,” he said. “And the content of the piece, the connections to dementia and to mental health, the challenges to patients and caregivers — that’s a set of conversations I think the arts can help spur.”