Reassembled, Slightly Askew
Head into an immersive audio-sensory simulation of artist Shannon Yee's life-changing brain injury as her binaural theatre production returns
Reassembled, Slightly Askew returns to the MAC in Belfast from February 16-26 as part of the NI Science Festival. The show’s title stems from Shannon Yee’s realisation about the effect on her body of a near death experience when a subdural empyema caused her to be admitted for emergency neurosurgery to the Royal Victoria Hospital in December 2008.
What started as a sinus infection led to muscular spasms, then headaches and vomiting, before being diagnosed as a rare brain infection that was detected just in time to relieve near-fatal pressure. Ahead of Reassembled's opening, playwright and producer Yee outlines the genesis of the show.
It wasn't until a year after leaving hospital before Yee felt well enough to begin making something artistic about what she had gone through. 'I hadn’t recovered, nor will I ever, really,' she admits. 'I’ll always have an acquired brain injury and have had to manage how my disability affects me on a daily basis. I knew it would incorporate movement – because I was paralysed down the left side of my body for three weeks – and sound – because I have terrible noise sensitivity.'
When audiences enter a theatre, we bring with us our individual prejudices, our fears and our vulnerabilities. But normally we also stay as part of a larger seated cohort, bouncing emotion off each other as we absorb what is happening on stage. With Reassembled, Slightly Askew, those attending are gradually segregated and isolated from each other for the remainder of the 90 minute performance.
The show recreates some of Yee’s medical crisis and its aftermath as audience members – just six at a time – are welcomed into a ward, made comfortable on a hospital bed, blindfolded and don earphones that draw them into a sensory experience.
An early version of the first act – or first ‘fog’ as the show’s creators refer to it – was tested at the Pick n Mix festival in 2014, and the full work premiered during 2015’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and toured through Northern Ireland venues before heading international.
Whether due to the isolation, the 3D audio or the storytelling, the social media reactions of audience members coming out of the show suggest that they are quite affected by the experience.
Reassembled’s long development process included work with focus groups and gathering feedback from medical professions to fine tune the level of immersion. Audiences are greeted by a nurse, who remains with them throughout the experience, reassuring them before the audio starts, supervising them during the show and bringing them back into reality after the audio stops.
Reassembled extends sonic storytelling well beyond the norms and methods of radio plays, as Shannon explains: 'The binaural microphone technology we used makes the sound three-dimensional, so the audience members feel they are in the scenes – in my head - and there is a visceral embodied response to what’s happening.'
She adds that while 'binaural theatre shows have become more popular in the past couple of years … this is the only show that we know of that has incorporated medical expertise [Shannon’s neurosurgeon, neuropsychologist and brain injury nurse were brought on board as advisors], an interdisciplinary artistic team and a personal experience of brain injury.'
The show has been a team effort with Shannon working alongside interdisciplinary theatre specialist Anna Newell, Paul Stapleton from Queen's University's Sonic Arts Research Centre, Tinderbox’s dramaturg Hanna Slättne and choreographer Stevie Prickett.
The work also benefitted from support from the MAC’s Hatch programme, grants from the Arts & Disability Awards Ireland and the Wellcome Trust for research and development, as well as funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the Cedar Foundation to take Reassembled on tour.
But technology can not be allowed to trump the story.
Having experimented and innovated with binaural technology, sonic arts is not the artistic path that Yee now plans to follow long term. Instead it’s the experience of collaborative creation with artists and experts that was so crucial to Reassembled that she is more likely to pick up again in the future.
She has referred to her acquired brain injury as a 'hidden disability'. As well as giving members of the public insight into her experience, Reassembled has also been used to challenge medical professionals to think more carefully about how their day-to-day processes are perceived by patients. Yee recalls a nurse telling her 'that even after hearing a ten minute sample they would change their practice'.
Audiences in the MAC in February will get inside Shannon’s head and feel her perception of what was happening. It’s a very rare chance – a gift perhaps – to be able to experience an illness and yet be able to walk away at the end with the memory of it but not the lingering side effects. That’s something very special that theatre – and particularly this immersive, personal style of production – can do that neither a doctor nor Stephen Nolan’s radio show nor a leaflet can even begin to replicate.
'We all are one step away from being a patient in a hospital bed, unfortunately. Too often, the arts and health are pitted against each other in budget debates. The feedback we’ve gotten from audiences over the three years that Reassembled has been touring Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK is that this experience increased their empathy and understanding.'