John Michael's 'Dementia Me' tackles death and Alzheimer's with humor

Thu. August 18, 2016 3:25 PM by Anthony Morgano

john michael

photo credit // paul clark

Chicago-based gay actor’s one man show plays at The Den on Mondays

If you saw a bunch of balloons floating around a festival this summer, you probably received a card from the person attached to them: Chicago-based performer John Michael Colgin. John MIchael (who prefers to drop his last name) has taken to the streets promoting the self-produced five week run of his latest one man show, "Dementia Me," by any means necessary.

Prior to his August 15 opening, the gay performer appeared on WGN radio where he discussed himself, his show and -- once he realized it was a topic they wouldn't bleep out -- his past working at an adult bookstore in his native Dallas. He's attended many street festivals and events with balloons tied to his waist, performed a portion of his show at a cabaret in Hyde Park and during the interview for this article followed two strangers down the street, accosting them with jokes and invitations.

"Dementia Me" is a coming-of-age story that examines the time John Michael spent working at a "memory care facility" with folks diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the subsequent death of his mother -- heavy topics that the effervescent 27-year-old explores with his unique, quirky sense of humor, rendering serious topics seriously funny. The most common question his grassroots guerilla marketing has prompted is this: "Are you making fun of people with dementia?" 

"I always said no, but then I realized that I am," John Michael told "And that if anything, that's respectful -- because people need to like be included in stories. People are so sacrosanct that they treat sticky issues with such respect that they don't touch them and then the issues aren't really explored." 

"I believe that everyone deserves to be made fun of....People are so scared about it that they take away someone's voice by not letting them be part of the story," he continued. "And no, I'm not making fun of them because they have dementia, I'm making fun of them because they're human."

And since John Michael is the one man in his one man show, he needed to find a way to represent the other characters populating his world, ie: the patients with dementia he acted as activities director for. The show opens with a birthday party for one of said patents; technically it's a surprise party, "not because he doesn't know about the party, but because he doesn't know it's his birthday." Whereas some solo performers rely on voice control, John Michael opts for prop manipulation, and so the birthday party theme developed into the patients being represented by balloons.

The minimalist set of "Dementia Me" features half a dozen or so such balloons etched with the faces of Dementia -- happy faces, sad faces, confused faces. Faces of a poet he was fond of or a the one woman singalong club or the patient who walked in on him in the bathroom on his first day. John Michael manipulates the balloons, talks to them and walks with them, and when a patient dies he breaks down as the balloon slowly deflates.

"It's so weird that it kinda works," he said. "Balloons are fun and then they represent this thing that's really scary, and I like that juxtaposition of having something that is so associated with a good time and reimagining it as something scary."

If there's a theme to John Michael's work, it is that: using humor and creativity to tackle scary issues. The first show he performed in Chicago, "John Michael and the Order of the Penix," approached the topics of STDs and safe sex as a young gay man by having John Michael interacting with characters from Harry Potter and even giving the titular character AIDS. 

He first performed "Penix" as part of Mary-Arrchie Theatre's Abbie Hoffman Died For Our Sins Festival. Later, when he was having trouble finding someone to produce his work, Mary-Arrchie's Artistic Director and Chicago theatre legend Rich Cotovsky offered to let John Michael perform after the show that was currently playing at Mary-Arrchie. After a successful run, John Michael returned to workshop "Dementia Me" after another Mary-Arrchie show earlier this year.

"You know when you get here you think you have to shmooze and network and it can be really scary, when in reality all I wanted was to just do my work," John Michael said. "And Rich gave me that opportunity...I was complaining and he's like 'why don't you do it after my show?'...Just like that. And what was great about it was that -- because it was my Harry Potter AIDS show -- he looks like f***ing' Hagrid. He's my Hagrid. Like Hagrid introduced Harry to the wizarding world, he introduced me to the theatre world of Chicago."

When Cotovsky announced that Mary-Arrchie was closing after 30 years (the last Abbie Hoffman Festival is this weekend, right before John Michael's second show on Monday), it was just the motivation John Michael needed to take the next step in his theatre career in Chicago -- producing his own work. So he approached The Den in Wicker Park and negotiated a deal for five Monday nights -- industry night -- in August and September and got to work polishing "Dementia Me."

He travelled home to Dallas earlier this summer and shared a version of "Dementia Me" with some of his mentors and former collaborators, both performing his new show for them and taking in their feedback and consideration. John Michael's theatre-style is, like the creator himself, non-conventional and as a result, "Dementia Me" is always changing -- no two performances are quite the same. Instead of being completely written down, the show is composed of stories linked together with themes and repetition. The idea, John Michael says, is for the show itself to be able to interact with the audience.

"We all have the story of how we lost our virginity," he said. "We all have the story of how we yelled out the wrong name during sex...well, maybe not all of us. But we all have these stories and they change depending on who we say them to...or there's different life between the stories depending on our audience and that's how my shows are. The idea is that the off-the-cuff-ness is real, and it is real. It allows me to go places because when a mistake happens I can just acknowledge it and keep on going and keep on being real."

There's a line in "Dementia Me" after John Michael is hired at the memory care center where his friends react by saying "oh that's so," "What they mean to say is weird," John Michael retorts and laughs, before lamenting that they all add that his job "must take so much patience." What the job took, he says, was imagination -- the ability to step inside the shrinking world of an Alzheimer's patient and become their son, or re-live a memory, or make them laugh.

"There was this wonderful bit of being present and having these moments with people that get wiped away from their memory disease," he explained. "And it's so wonderful to know that just because something is forgotten doesn't mean it didn't happen."

This is an important theme for John Michael. Just over two years ago -- while he was working at the memory care clinic -- he was dealt a devastating blow when he suddenly lost his mother, a topic he also explores in "Dementia Me." Juxtaposed with the lighthearted and often bawdy humor of the show up to that point, his mother's death and the time that followed hits the audience especially hard. It also shows John Michael, already an open book, in an even more vulnerable light.

"My mother died and when denial kicked in it kicked in in a weird way...not denial in denying that she's dead but denying the memories," John Michael told "So like...all these memories just faded away, I was just focused on her death...But it's been two years now, and when i'm walking in the grocery store and I have a talk with the deli man that memory comes back that I forgot. And then sometimes when I'm doing something, I realize that I'm doing it because I had this moment with my mom. Now, I wonder how many moments I don't realize and I wonder how it's beautiful that I can't distinguish between the two parts, you know?"

Expect a couple tears, but far more laughter from John Michael's hilarious and deeply felt one man show. 

John Michael's self-produced run of "Dementia Me," directed by Randi Wallace, plays at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee (did we mention they have a bar?), every Monday through September 12 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the show, or online at