Early years, cognitive schema and poetry slams

When I was in college, I loved poetry slams and their poets. The diversity of the performers and the topics they voiced contrasted what I has studied in the traditional English curriculum from my mainly white, suburban Boston high school. The way the poets, such as Sarah Jones, Stayceyann Chin, Saul WilliamsJessica Care MooreBeau Si, and Taylor Mali made the language come alive and vibrant as they summon a ferocity greater than themselves.

Years later, I’m in Northern Ireland, writing a poetry slam show for 3-5 year olds. WIGGLEGIGGLE is the vision of Anna Newell of Replay Productions, co-produced by Nottingham Playhouse, with original music by David Goodall and choreography by Stevie Prickett. A ‘Dr Seuss meets hip-hop’ creation, WIGGLEGIGGLE aims to excite its audiences with its silly sounds, bouncing rhythms, fun free-styling, word-smithery, and tricky tongues. It’s been in development since Feb 2014, with periods of creative consultation with 3-5 year olds in the Belfast area.

(L to R) Cathy Walsh, Stephen Clarke, Doireann McKenna warm up with Dr. Seuss

(L to R) Cathy Walsh, Stephen Clarke, Doireann McKenna warm up with a Dr. Seuss freestyle

(L to R) Cathy Walsh, Stephen Clarke, Doireann McKenna warm up with Dr. Seussphoto 3The process of creating WIGGLEGIGGLE has been incredibly intricate, where the artistic team has constructed a show based on patterns–the building blocks of  communication, movement, and language development.  Without being conscious of it, we are moving all the time to internal patterns and rhythms, such as our heartbeat. These cadences of the brain and nervous system appear to play an important role in everything from walking to thinking, as Jon Hamilton covers in the June 2014 NPR article, Your Brain’s Got Rhythm, And Syncs When You Think.

We’ve also integrated the cognitive processes of learning–termed as ‘schema’ by the well-known child developmental theorist, Jean Piaget– and how our brains build relationships between information we know and new information. These underpin the linguistic progression of the show, how the text moves from aspirated ‘Pppfff’ sounds to whole phrases and poems.

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Stevie Prickett (choreographer) and Anna Newell (director) work out movement with the actors

In creating WIGGLEGIGGLE, we also integrated traditional poetic conventions, such as alliteration (a fantastic example of which is Daniel Radcliffe, yes Harry Potter, on Jimmy Fallon doing Blackalicious’ ‘Alphabet Aerobics’:

And onomatopoeia–an excellent example is The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak:

WIGGLEGIGGLE is currently on tour in Nottingham, courtesy of Nottingham Playhouse, and will return for a run in Belfast as part of the Children’s Festival in Spring 2015. Already we’re hearing feedback that during the performances the children are engrossed, mesmerized, mimicking movement, and having a fantastic time!

Focus group feedback to ‘Reassembled…’ (Sept 14)

The development of Reassembled, Slightly Askew continues, with one more focus group held this month, in the same format as the one held in May:

Participants completed a baseline evaluation about their knowledge of neurology, acquired brain injury, psychoacoustics and binaural microphone technology, brain injury support services in Northern Ireland, and if the arts can be used as an effective approach in training for biomedical/health & social care professionals.

They were explained the terms of play, so to speak–if at any point during the audio experience, they wanted to stop listening, they could remove the headphones. They retained an element of control in the immersive experience in which they were lying down in hospital beds, eyes covered with eyemasks, ears covered by headphones. They were also told that while the two short audio samples from the current full draft was being played, they would be supervised, but not stared at.

After the two separate audio samples were played, the participants were gently woken one by one, and invited to return to the discussion table in their own time. There, they revisited their baseline evaluation, made additional comments, and a short group discussion was facilitated:

“The use of the sound technology was impeccable. I have never felt more in this situation before, especially the part where Shannon is being washed in the hospital. I truly believed that I could almost feel it myself! Amazing work!”

“I found this very powerful Shannon—it raised questions for me that I haven’t thought of— why do they have mirrors in lifts?? I was very struck by this I felt like the piece clearly conveyed the powerlessness.”

“I believe this is an excellent tool as it gives an understanding as to what feels like to have an acquired brain injury; the confusion the frustration etc, I felt at points I was experiencing the journey myself”

“Having also spent 3 weeks in the high dependency unit of a hospital in the past year, I found this quite traumatic. While your specific injury was brain-related, have you considered its impact on other types of illness”

“How can I find out more?”

“How did it feel for Shannon waking up in the hospital to foreign Northern Irish accents”

“It is mesmerising, hypnotising”

“Overwhelming—almost like getting soaked in a tidal wave”

“I do feel taken out of myself and vulnerable”

“Very personal piece of work. headphones transport us to her ‘world’/condition, could happen to any of us at any time, need to know more about these issues”

This feedback will be given to the artistic team and inform the next stages of revision as we move toward completion of the final draft before the end of Dec 14.

Reassembled logosShannon Yee is a HATCH supported artist at the MAC from 2013/2014.

Focus Group Feedback

On 23 May 2014, a cross-section of individuals from the biomedical/health & social care, arts, community/voluntary sector (brain injury support) organizations attended came to The MAC (Belfast) and participated in a one-hour focus group session in which they heard two sections of a draft of Reassembled…Slightly Askew.

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From General Public–

This was a powerful and enlightening piece of work. I felt frightened and nauseous in equal measure. It enabled me to empathise with Shannon and her trauma in a comparatively very short amount of time.

 

The audio engineering was great. You felt abstracted within the environment. The sound moved you through different realms. The voice brought you back to a place of consciousness.

It made me consciously aware of how good health care in NI is.

It was a spiritual, otherworldly experience.

Having worked in Brain Injury Services, I have some knowledge on how an ABI can impact on an individual, however, to experience it in this way was very insightful and has helped in my learning and understanding.

IMG_5457The technology could also be used to communicate how other hard to understand ailments feel to the sufferer—eg. Dementia/Alzheimers, Autism—so could have a very powerful social impact.

Trying to process what’s going on made me think about how my brain works.

I’d love to see it as a permanent installation in a hospital, a requirement in training.

 

 

 

From Neurosurgeons–

IMG_5453I was under the impression that empathy could not be taught, but this experience has demonstrated otherwise.

The hospital system doesn’t allow us to understand what that person’s going through. [They are] a disease entity we’re treating. We forget the humanity underneath.

I thought this was going to be something ‘arty-farty’. I had no idea it would affect me so profoundly and viscerally.

It allows you to have the patient experience without being paralyzed with fear…valuable as we are shifting to a patient-centred servic.

 A unique experience that every neurosurgeon would have to experience.

The neurosurgeons also shared that the focus group setting provided the first time they were able to chat with fellow neurosurgeons about their experiences in this way. The experience allowed them to discuss their practice, coping mechanisms and the process of going through parts of the patient journey via Reassembled, Slightly Askew prompted them to unexpected self-analysis, self-reflection and a place of consciousness of their professional competencies.

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In order to hear someone, they have to be able to speak first

Since I moved to Northern Ireland, I have been struggling with my ability to write a multilingual play; correction—I have struggling with whether I should even bother writing a multilingual play here because the odds of it getting developed and produced are incredibly slim, simply because Northern Ireland (and Ireland) lacks diversity in its pool of professional actors.

I was able to do this only once before in NI, funded through a local government initiative called Art of Regeneration, run by Antrim, Ballymena, Magherafelt Borough Councils in 2007. I wrote a short play called What’s In A Name? about a young Polish person named Alicia living in Northern Ireland and her process of negotiating a minority cultural identity, in particular, the significance of choosing an English name to call herself.

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I have plenty of experience with that. I’m biracial myself, where ‘American’ is often mistaken as short-hand for ‘white’. I remember completing the demographic section of a standardized test in school when I was 8 and thinking to myself, “I’m not fluent in Chinese, so am I allowed tick the box that says I am Chinese?” I have grown up in relatively diverse environments where a dialogue about race and ethnicity exists. I have worked extensively with young people in New York City and observed their own struggles around being a minority.

The Polish actors in What’s In A Name? spoke both in Polish and English, and performances were followed up with a workshop led by the talented Charo Lanao-Madden about multiculturalism in Northern Ireland. The most popular feedback was that the young people enjoyed seeing Polish actors onstage, meeting them afterwards, and hearing Polish.

That was in 2007, and I haven’t felt it was feasible for me to write a play in a language other than English in Northern Ireland since. Until 2013.

I secured an Arts Council NI Minority Ethnic Artist Award to research the life and poetry of local author Helen Waddell and create a short bilingual play (Chinese/English) based on her collection Lyrics From the Chinese, Waddell’s own life and its cultural plurality, and prevailing issues in contemporary NI. Half of the cast of characters in Redeeming the Time are Chinese, and half are Northern Irish. However, the play cannot progress through the vital stages of script development and then performance without Chinese actors and further support.

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In 2013, I also received a commission to be one of 5 NI-based writers to participate in Terra Nova Productions’ evening of new writing, Arrivals, which opens tonight. Thanks to Terra Nova’s vision, I have been, at last, able to write for an ethnically diverse cast for a mainstage production that will tour around NI 12-22 Feb. As the actors are also multi-lingual (Punjabi, Romanian, Chinese, English), I have been able to include 4 different languages in my short play, titled Under Any Other Duties.

On the Soundcloud track below, writers Deirdre Cartmill, John Morrison & artist Nandi Jola chat about the project with BBC Arts Extra’s Marie-Louise Muir. The other writers on Arrivals are Jim Meredith, Paul McMahon, John Morrison and me.

Tremendous focus is placed on the act of listening to bridge cultural boundaries, particularly in NI. However, when it comes to cultural plurality, language is the essence of one’s ability to express oneself, to be heard and understood; from a playwriting point of view, without the actors to speak the languages, the conversation is one-sided.

Feedback

Ever since I began working on this piece about growing up LGBT during The Troubles in NI, I’ve grappled with the best form to present the theatrical experience in. It seems to be a mix of all sorts: quasi-historical archive that’s part verbatim theatre. My concern has always been how to honor the interviewees, their stories, and their trust; making a piece of theatre that is innovative, exciting, and moving is the best (and only) way to do that.

After doing the first round of interviews (courtesy of a 2010 Arts Council NI Support of Individual Artist Award), I felt stuck. How do I shape this plethora of stories? What is the best FORM to hold them? I needed feedback. I needed input. I needed a test, a look, a think.

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During a week in early July, Theatreofpluck, with Anna Newell, took some of what I had written, exploded it to its essences, and presented it back to me and a small group of invited guests. The audience was a composed of some interviewees, their guests, and local theatre professionals. This is some of what they (anonymously) said about the ‘experiment’:

“I was unsure what to expect, before arriving to the MAC I thought, ‘This could be so boring!’ However, I could have never been so wrong! The show was of such elegance and intimacy. It brought emotions of solitude and loneliness, bringing together how the so-called ‘Troubles’ affected people. It was something I would expect to see in Barcelona, not a small place like Belfast.”

“Very interesting, something verbatim can be boring but the presentation and juxtaposition of spoken/written word worked excellently against the background of the music.”

“Very invigorating. Innovative, exciting, insightful. Loved the whole set-up from the 1st stage through to the end.”

“This was something very different for Belfast and the queer community…parts were very over stimulating but at the same time powerful. I would hope this will be completed and finished—did we hear everyone’s story? Well done, beautifully done.”

“…challenging and boundary-pushing theatre. A very experimental piece where traditional and the untested were together.”

“Enjoyed the whole experience-the creativity of the pieces—of actually feeling like I was in the work.”

“I think that this is a very interesting approach to a potentially overwrought subject.”

“I think there is a lacking of stories told by women within different kinds of researches, and I think this ‘experiment’ could be a great opportunity to ‘voice’ more and more women’s experiences…The experience of the Troubles told by gay people is likely to be different from many others and I think it would be important to raise awareness towards them. Academic works have presented gay people’s lives in Northern Ireland to a certain extent, but I believe a work like this could perhaps reach a different and broader public…”

“Very different from anything I have ever attended.”

“I think you have done an amazing job in telling and honouring our stories. When I first heard your proposal to do this work I remember thinking—why is someone from outside that time doing this? But then I figured—no one else is doing it. I respect Shannon and I’ll trust her and go along with it. Having experienced this I realize you are the only one who could have done this. You have absolutely honoured the trust so many people have placed in you. Thank you. I look forward to further versions.”

I think we’re on the right track!

Re-writing…

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In less than 3 weeks, I will be submitting ‘About the Whether’ to The Royal Court Theatre in London, as a member of their National Playwriting Group. Plotting out each character’s journey during the play on notecards helps to show where the missing story beats are. It also provides some much-needed perspective when my brain gets stuck in the traditional ‘left to right, top to bottom’ way that writing makes you work on paper, and consequently, think.

Fast & Loose!

Not long now until Accidental Theatre’s ‘Fast & Loose!’ project kicks off! Also deemed as ‘theatre for the chronically impatient’… I’m chronically impatient, but after writing a short play over Friday night to be cast, rehearsed and produced 24 hours later, I will also be chronically wrecked! It’ll be a delightful whirlwind of a project and I can’t wait to see what & who emerges on my playwrighting screen in the early hours…

And it’s already sold out! (No pressure, indeed.)