Andy McDonnell's gags make his audience feel better - and then some, writes Josh Jennings.
Arts Health Institute performer Andy McDonnell has just finished playing a gig at an aged care facility in Penrith when he picks up the phone.
The performance was met with varied responses from the residents, McDonnell says. There were even tears.
"One lady responded by crying and one lady (who no longer spoke much English) just said, 'Beautiful, beautiful'. There were a lot of good responses and connections ..."
McDonnell is an arts support team leader and Play Up performer with the AHI. The AHI operates national programs, provides education and drives research into the role of the arts in health and aged care environments.
McDonnell, who cracks gags and performs songs on a ukulele (among other things), says he offers residents a combination of entertainment and therapy. He works with a client list outlining the residents he needs to see every week and he interacts with them during three-hour sessions.
Residents have their own unique ways of responding and McDonnell needs to tailor his performances to suit their personalities and health issues.
"The things that happen with dementia are an apathy and inability to stimulate yourself.
"My job is to ... stimulate them so that engagement and connection with the world happens."
McDonnell studied economics and law after high school (he had two units to go to complete the double degree) but the acting bug infected him and he split for acting school.
After graduating three years later, he performed predominantly in theatre but also on TV from time to time in ads and TV shows including A Country Practice and All Saints - in between out-of-work-actor stints taxi-driving, lawn- mowing and house-building.
McDonnell says he didn't know what to expect when he auditioned for his current role two years ago.
"When I first got on the floor I kind of went, 'Oh, my God'. It's quite a different environment and one I didn't know much about. I wasn't very aware of what went on in aged care facilities.
"But empathy and compassion are really big foundations to this work, and I found I felt OK about that side of it."
McDonnell is also employed by AHI to run workshops to facilitate collaboration between AHI performers and residential staff. This year, he was awarded AHI's People's Choice Play Up Performer 2013 Linden Award, named after the late Joy Linden, an advocate for the Play Up program.
"It was really humbling, to say the least," McDonnell says.
But it was gravy, too.
"Why I really love this work is because I find it so engaging and fulfilling, and I'm still learning so much about myself and how to connect with people and increase my skill base and bag of tricks. It's keeping me intrigued and my creative side is being stimulated."
The AHI is seeking expressions of interest from performers for its PlayUp program: artshealthinstitute.org.au/