Christine Mary Dunford puts bestseller onstage

Christine Mary Dunford

Christine Mary Dunford is co-founder of the Memory Ensemble, which offers improv sessions for people with Alzheimer’s.

Here’s how Christine Mary Dunford came to adapt the bestselling novel Still Alice into a play that she directed recently for Lookingglass Theatre:

She was working with the director of a program for Alzheimer’s patients and asked her if she’d ever considered stage performance as a way to reach them.

“Yes, but I didn’t know how,” the director said.

Said Dunford: “I know how.”

Dunford, associate chair of UIC’s theatre and music department, is a partner on Alzheimer’s-related projects with Darby Morhardt and Mary O’Hara of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

They co-founded the Memory Ensemble, which involves patients in improvisation.

“People don’t have to remember,” Dunford said.

Because she needed background on Alzheimer’s, Dunford asked Morhardt for some literature. The book Still Alice, by Lisa Genova, was part of the material she was handed.

“One of the reasons I liked it was that it shifted the discourse about ‘dying from’ to ‘living with,’” she said.

“It matched my own values and principles about living and change, and my experience with people in the Memory Ensemble. Living with Alzheimer’s — that felt truthful to me.”

Another thing she liked about Still Alice was its “dark humor that matched my experience with people with Alzheimer’s,” Dunford said.

“Sometimes people are afraid, sad or confused, but when their feelings are acknowledged, they quickly move into the chance to do something positive with humor and hope.”

She wanted the play to present some of the biggest questions about living with Alzheimer’s and “provide a vocabulary for more conversation.”

She seems to have succeeded.

“People who came to the play told me almost without exception that they drove home talking about it,” Dunford said.

One of several works she’s adapted into plays, Still Alice, which ran at Lookingglass from April 20 to May 19, “came rather easily,” she said.

“The source material is so good, and I’d had a lot of personal experience that gave me a sense of clarity about what I wanted to do.”

As with any piece of fiction, the challenge was in translating the narrative voice to the stage. Dunford did this by splitting Alice into two characters.

Both are onstage together, along with the play’s other characters — Alice’s husband, their two children, a grad student and two doctors.

“Alice talks to herself,” Dunford said. “She can say things she thinks that she wouldn’t say to her family.”

Dunford has been part of the Lookingglass ensemble since 1989 and has acted in, written, adapted or directed nearly three dozen of the theater’s productions.

For the Memory Ensemble, she gets together with eight to 15 Alzheimer’s patients once a week for improv work.

“No one has to remember anything from week to week,” she said.

In one exercise, objects are grouped in the middle of the room and participants take turns pretending the objects are something else.

Illustrating, Dunford picked up her sweater and held it like a violin, cradled it like a baby and tugged on it like a dog leash.

For each transformation, “everyone shouts ‘Yes it is!’” she said.

“Everyone is creative, everyone is supportive, everyone is successful in a safe environment.”

Twenty years ago, Dunford co-founded the Lookingglass Education and Community program for public and private school students across the city.

In the Young Ensemble, kids ages 8 to 18 spend a school year creating a play — or adapting one from a short story or novel — then stage and produce it.

In 1994, Dunford became a founding teaching artist with the Chicago Arts Partners in Education, teaching in the program until 2003.

As an anthropology research associate with the Field Museum, she conducted research commissioned by the city’s Department of Environment on how residents understand and deal with issues of conservation and climate change.

Dunford’s family lived in Evanston and Chicago until she was 6, moving to Rockford for three years and then to Phoenix, Ariz.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in theater from Northwestern University.

“I thought about a double major including political science, but I kept coming back to theater,” she said.

“Through stories, we get to experience and explore what it means to be human.”

Dunford received a master’s degree in cultural anthropology at UIC before returning to Northwestern for a doctorate in performance studies.

She rejoined UIC in 2012 as associate chair of theatre and music and will be director of the new School of Theatre and Music.

Dunford lives in Evanston with her husband, Daniel Cunningham, production coordinator at Oakton Community College, and their two young children.

“I like to hike and camp with my family,” she said. “I have an interest in travel, but don’t get to do a lot of it.

“And I want to learn to draw and watercolor. It’s on my list of things to do when I retire.”

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