Shannon Yee is the writer behind Reassembled, Slightly Askew, is a ground-breaking binaural audio-immersive theatrical experience based on her personal experiences of brain trauma and disability. It will be showcased at the Battersea Arts Centre this month as part of A Nation’s Theatre Festival, 11-28 May coinciding with Action for Brain Injury Week on 9-15 May.
In December 2015, Shannon was announced by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland as one of 21 local creatives to receive an Artist Career Enhancement Scheme award (ACES), a development award, worth up to £5000, which enables artists from the region to take their careers to the next level. Shannon’s award is being used to develop a sustainability plan for Reassembled, Slightly Askew, through personalized mentoring from the Arts & Disability Forum with the aim of building networks around the UK and Ireland to showcase the work.
Theatre Bubble: What has audience reaction to the show been like?
Shannon Yee: Similar to the reactions last year when it toured in Northern Ireland – people have been very moved emotionally, and also very curious about the details of what had happened, because it was such a rare medical situation I was in. It resonated with a lot of people because brain injury is the largest cause of disability globally – everyone knows somebody who has had a brain incident in some way, whether personally or professionally, whether its a brain tumour or a stroke or even a concussion. So in terms of relevance for audiences it hits them on that personal note, from being placed inside (safely) my first-person experience, but also on a personal level from someone they may know.
TB: Who has influenced this project, and been involved in its development?
SY: First and foremost it’s an interdisciplinary artistic team. There are five artists, with myself as playwright. There’s a director, Anna Newell, who specialises in interdisciplinary forms. I knew early on that whatever I would create about this personally harrowing experience would be looking at sound as a dynamic medium, looking at dramatic narrative, but also looking at movement as a dynamic medium because I was paralysed down the left side of my body for three weeks and was told I would never walk again. Sound was a very important element because I had a lot of noise sensitivity when I was paralysed and had double vision in the early days in the hospital. I told Anna I didn’t know what I wanted the piece to be but I wanted to have these aspects in it. She knew the sonic artist Paul Stapleton, and had worked with Stevie Prickett – who had the difficult job of choreographing something you don’t necessarily see, but that the audience feels around their bodies, because we use binaural sound technology that spatialises sound.
I was able to secure a Welcome Trust Grant which allowed me to bring in my consultant neurosurgeon, head injury nurse and neuropsychologist in on the process. So you have arts, medicine and science all triangulated around my personal story of brain injury. I know I’m very lucky to even be aware of what my journey was and to be able to articulate it is a whole other level!
TB: Without too many spoilers – what stage are you at in your recovery? If that isn’t too personal a question!
SY: It’s not! In the early days the working title for Reassembled, Slightly Askew was “Recovery” because we thought “You know, you’re on this road to recovery.” But that changed because I realised “Recovery” implies a medical model, and it implies that I’m going to go back to who I was. That’s not going to be the case – it’s more a rehabilitation process. I have fortunately learned how to walk again – that took about nine weeks – but I still struggle with cognitive and physical fatigue and I’m told that may never leave me.
Being a writer I’ve always written to make sense of myself and the world around me so I always knew when myself and the world around me completely changed that I would make something. I never wanted to bring people on a therapeutic process with me, it was more trying to capture that experience, because after I got discharged from hospital there was nothing out there that reflected my experience.
TB: What do you imagine the experience of an audience member coming out of that binaural sound technology is like – it’s interesting you talk about learning to walk again…
SY: There’s a real duty of care that we give to audience members. It’s a small audience, it’s in a quiet calm room, there is information of what to expect and you can end the experience whenever you want if you are feeling uncomfortable or claustrophobic. Also, the Nurse individually awakes or guides each audience member out of the experience afterwards. We felt a real duty of care because people have felt very moved by it – some people have felt their senses have been heightened afterwards, or felt they had to be alone… People talk about the arts as a way of creating empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes, but this goes one step further – it takes you into someone else’s head.
What’s really exciting is I’ve run a bunch of focus groups throughout the development of the piece with arts professionals, but also with healthcare professionals and neurosurgeons who have said that it has changed their practice. In Northern Ireland the arts and health are constantly pitted against each other for public funding – but this I believe marries the two and shows how the arts can proactively enhance the quality of healthcare.
TB: Can you tell me about the ACES Development Award and how this has helped you?
SY: It’s one of the personalised grants available in Northern Ireland provided by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and I was successful in receiving it to develop bespoke mentoring for me both as an artist with a disability and for Reassembled as an artistic product about my disability. It has enabled I was able to continue the relationship I had started with Arts & Disability Forum – who have been supporting me off and on throughout Reassembled‘s development process and gave me confidence when I first came out of the hospital that I could be a working artist with a disability. The ACES Award is what I need now at this point in my career and its what this project needs now at this point in its life.