One-Night Performance of Acclaimed Play UnRavelled Examines Art, Dementia, and Science
The play examines the connection between frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and creativity by focusing on the real-life bond across time between the modern-day scientist-turned-painter Dr. Anne Adams and composer Maurice Ravel.
Above: an ensemble from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music performs during "UnRavelled." Photo by Matthew Washburn.
What is the connection between the work of Canadian painter Anne Adams and French composer Maurice Ravel, who lived nearly a century apart?
On July 21, the Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD), in partnership with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, UCSF Memory and Aging Center, and the Global Brain Health Institute, hosted a one-night performance of the critically acclaimed play UnRavelled, which tells the story of Adams and her obsession with composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, by writer, actor and Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health Jake Broder.
The play examines how Adams, through her diagnosis of FTD, developed as a painter and became a remarkable artist. Through her story, the play seeks to explain the creative surge Ravel had while experiencing similar symptoms of brain degeneration as he composed his most famous work almost 100 years earlier.
Above: Leo Marks as Bruce Miller and Rob Nagle as Robert Adams (left), Lucy Davenport as Anne Adams and Rob Nagle as Robert Adams in "UnRavelled" (right). Photos by Matthew Washburn.
The performance was followed by a 30-minute expert panel discussion on creativity and brain science featuring Jake Broder, Bruce Miller, Virginia Sturm (UCSF/GBHI), Susan Dickinson (Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration) and Lucy Davenport (UnRavelled), moderated by Emily Silverman (UCSF/The Nocturnists).
“AFTD is pleased to be able to present this powerful play,” said AFTD CEO Susan L-J Dickinson. “Our hope is that it will bring greater awareness not only of FTD, but of the resilience of the care partners, people with a diagnosis, and all whose lives are touched by this cruel disease. There is hope in Jake’s presentation—in how it acknowledges what can still be possible for some with this diagnosis, and in how it asks us to look with new understanding at how the brain can work. Fully understanding how this disease impacts the brain will ultimately unlock research for treatments and a cure.”
FTD is the most common dementia for people under 60. In the U.S. alone it affects more than 60,000 people—a number that is very likely an undercount, as FTD remains frequently misdiagnosed today. A recent study published in JAMA Neurology led by Global Atlantic Fellow Adit Friedberg found that FTD can, in rare cases, lead to a burst of visual creative energy by those who are diagnosed with the disorder. The findings may illuminate how visual creativity emerges.
Incorporating research and interviews conducted by Broder as a Hellman Visiting Artist at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center, UnRavelled explores the fascinating connection between the work of Canadian painter Adams (1940–2007) and French composer Ravel (1875–1937). The play marries live music, visual arts and science, including images of Adams’ paintings and brain scans. The finale involves a symphonic performance of Bolero.
“Ravel and Dr. Adams were in the early stages of primary progressive aphasia, a form of frontotemporal dementia, when they were working,” said Bruce Miller, Co-Founding Director of GBHI. “The disease apparently altered circuits in their brains, changing the connections between the front and back parts and resulting in a torrent of creativity.”
“Hope embedded in this story brings together doctors, nurses, caregivers, mothers, daughters, fathers, and people living with different subtypes of dementia,” said Broder, who spent several years studying neuroscience and interviewing Miller, who treated Adams, to create the play. “They have wept, shared, and seen themselves and their loved ones in a new way for the first time, experiencing something more than just pain when thinking about dementia.”
A previous version of UnRavelled was performed online during the pandemic. The play was nominated for five Los Angeles Drama Critic Circle Awards (LADCC) including best writing, production, and ensemble, and won for design. In July 2023, it won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild.
For more information, visit UnRavelled.
The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD)
For more than 20 years, The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (theaftd.org) has worked with dedicated volunteers and donors to elevate the stories and perspectives of a resilient community. Our mission is to improve the quality of life of people affected by frontotemporal dementia, and drive research to a cure. AFTD advances collaborative research; supports all directly impacted by FTD; raises awareness and educates healthcare professionals; and advocates for appropriate, affordable services.
ABOUT THE PARTNERSHIP
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, and the Global Brain Health Institute joined forces in 2019 to explore the intersection of music, creativity, and brain science. Through this innovative collaboration, we work together to produce an annual series of public-facing educational programming. The programs highlight novel scientific research and core principles of music and music theory, with presenters from both institutions and exemplary musical performances. Ultimately, the programs raise awareness of innovations in brain health and music to a broad audience. Read more about the partnership.