Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Mesulam Center for Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease

The Memory Ensemble™

An Improvisational Theater Experience For Persons With Memory Loss

The Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (Mesulam CNADC) of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is working with the Lookingglass Theatre Company (LTC) to develop the Memory Ensemble - an 8-week theatre intervention program for persons with early stage Alzheimer’s Disease and related conditions. This research program offers individuals with memory loss a unique and enriching experience through the exploration of improvisational theatre. Improvisational theater is a form of acting in which actors use techniques to perform spontaneously. No acting experience is required! Focusing on the Lookingglass Theatre Company’s core values of invention, transformation, and collaboration, members of The Memory Ensemble will learn to use their instincts, creativity and spontaneity as they work together to explore and create improvisational theater. Workshops are led by Lookingglass Ensemble members and CNADC staff.


The mission of the Memory Ensemble is to improve the quality of life for persons living with Alzheimer’s Disease (ADRD) and related disorders through the intervention of improvisational theater; to investigate the benefits of this non-pharmacological intervention; and to translate these benefits to other communities.

Brief History

The Memory Ensemble was conceived by Darby Morhardt (Mesulam CNADC) and Christine Mary Dunford (LTC) in late 2009 in response to an unmet need for challenging and supportive creative learning opportunities for people experiencing early stage memory loss. Mary O’Hara (Mesulam CNADC) joined Darby and Christine, and together they designed and implemented an 8–week research pilot of the Memory Ensemble program in the summer of 2010. Results from the 2010 and 2011 pilot program were very positive.


According to the Alzheimer’s Association, someone in America develops Alzheimer’s every 69 seconds, and by midcentury, someone will develop the disease every 33 seconds. An estimated 5.4 million people have Alzheimer’s Disease. As the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias increases, research continues for treatments or a cure. Meanwhile, efforts must be made to find non-pharmacological, or non-medical, ways to help people live with the disease. There is an unmet need for specific programs and activities designed for early stage memory loss to help manage disease, normalize life, and support social needs. Despite limited research, tapping into creative abilities of persons with early stage dementia shows promise. While we know that creative interventions cannot stop disease progression, they can be effective ways to provide people with a sense of efficacy and decrease depression.

Results from the Pilot Programs

The goal of the first pilot session was to determine the feasibility of the project and to measure quality of life with pre/post measures and careful note taking during each session. Preliminary results show a trend toward improvement in quality of life and sessions yield feelings of success and empowerment among the participants. The Memory Ensemble appears to be a promising creative arts intervention for individuals in the early to mid stages of Alzheimer's and related conditions and we are continuing to explore these outcomes.

"I am not sure that my memory has objectively improved, but I’m sure that my ability to cope with memory loss has improved."- 2011 Participant

Upcoming Sessions

For information about the next session of The Memory Ensemble, please contact Lauren Dowden, MSW, LCSW at 312-503-0604 or 
for more information.

Memory Ensemble in the News: