In what has become a holiday tradition, Beethoven Elementary School in Mar Vista presented a play Dec. 13 that intertwines the theme of the performance with the school’s efforts at assisting local charities during the December holidays.
This year, the students, under the direction of Kristen Duerr, performed The Memory Slippers, a play that deals with how families cope when one member of the unit begins to forget the names of loved ones and frequently loses whole portions of his or her life to memory loss.
“This play is special because at times, young children aren’t the most respectful to their elders,” said Dr. Althea Ford, the principal at Beethoven Elementary. “In (The Memory Slippers), Mrs. Duerr has gotten the children to reflect upon and realize what the elders have given and to make sure that we take care of them and treasure them.”
In the play, the grandmother, known as Nana and portrayed by Anna Holyfield, was a prima ballerina in her youth at the Lincoln Center and performed The Nutcracker. Her family kept the shoes that she wore on stage. Throughout most of the play, Nana, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, sits in her rocking chair, staring straight ahead while her daughter and granddaughter, Ruby (Maryssa Rodriguez) try to engage her in conversation.
“It can be very hard on a family and very difficult to understand,” said Duerr, whose 90-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s and was the inspiration for the play. “The disease can go through different stages and people afflicted with it can go through different personality shifts, which can confuse children sometimes.”
Duerr, a former teacher at Beethoven, said there are certain items that awaken in her mother what appear to be recollections of her past, similar to the Nana character in the play.
“Sometimes my mother will come out of her trance, so to speak, because something triggers her memory,” she explained. “Sometimes if you give her something to hold, something happens. If she hears music or she sees a child, something happens.”
The student who played Pops, Matthew Casillas, has a dream sequence where he remembers meeting Nana. During the dream sequence, fifth-graders perform the Nutcracker theme with flutes.
Dr. Amy Rosett, an Encino-based clinical psychologist who has expertise in working with older adults and families, noted that there are several different stages of Alzheimer’s.
“In the mild to moderate stages, many people can retain their memory of people and events from their distant past as opposed to recent events,” Rosett said.
Dr. Robert Bilder, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, added, “It is possible for someone with dementia (of which Alzheimer’s disease is one variant) to have old memories triggered by a cue that is linked to the old memories. In general, older memories, or those things that are more ‘over learned’are recalled better than new information.”
Ford says she is not surprised that many of the children are able to grasp the themes of Duerr’s plays.
“If you watch some of the kinds of movies that they’re watching, they have lessons in them,” she noted. “And Mrs. Duerr is very consistent about making sure that they get the information in a way that they can understand it over and over again until it is embedded.”
At the end of the play, Nana sees her old dancing shoes and appears to regain her memory of her dancing days. She gives them to Ruby, who puts them on and begins to dance. For the first time in the play, Nana begins to smile.
Regarding children with relatives who suffer from Alzheimer’s, Rosett said it is best to keep explanations short and simple.
“Parents need to use simple explanations based on the questions that children ask and explain that Grandma or Grandpa has a problem with their mood or their memory,” the psychologist recommends.
Beethoven Parent-Teacher Association President Kathy Vigil thought this year’s play was as good as those of past years. “The holiday program was amazing this year,” Vigil said. “Kristin Duerr is magical.”
Throughout The Memory Slippers, students from kindergarten to fifth grade sang holiday classics as well as selected hits from The Beatles.
This is the fifth year that Beethoven students have worked on a play with Duerr.
Last year, the students performed “Boxes for Katje,” a story based on a popular children’s book. It revolves around two girls from different continents, Katje Van Stegeran in Holland and Rosie Johnson in Indiana.
Based on the experiences of author Candace Fleming’s mother’s childhood recollections and set in post-World War II Holland, the book examines friendship and sharing during a time of great need.
As they have in past years, the school held a charity drive in conjunction with the play.
Last year, the theme of the play dealt with food shortages in Europe after the Second World War and the school held a canned food drive. Some Beethoven families volunteered at the Barker Hangar at Santa Monica Airport by packing 21st century versions of CARE packages for needy families. In Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) was the humanitarian organization that delivered boxes of food, blankets, medicine and clothes to families in Europe that had been left destitute by the ravages of the war.
This year the school worked with Soles4Souls, a nonprofit organization that assists in the distribution of shoes worldwide.
“This community donated over 1,000 pairs of shoes this year,” Duerr said proudly. “Students from Mark Twain (Middle School) and Venice High School also got involved.”
The elementary school has been on the upswing recently on the academic front. They recently posted a score of 900 on their API (Academic Performance Index), a measurement of scholastic performance for California schools. And in 2011 Beethoven was named a California Distinguished School.
“We’re continuing to grow. It’s been a wonderful year and it’s culminating with this wonderful play,” Ford said.
Duerr said injecting what she calls life skills into the plays is what gives them their meaning.
“I can’t do this whole program unless it has some meaning and brings out a character trait,” she said. “All the shows that I’ve done have that and that is the main goal of the program.”