Dealing with the loss of a family member to dementia, Antosh Wojcik decided to fuel his grief into drumming and spoken word. Here, he talks to Pam Vera about being ‘present’ and the unfortunate failings of his instrument.

Following a successful stint at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, Antosh Wojcik’s How to Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia makes a return with a UK run. I spoke with Wojcik, to discuss the raw inspiration behind the show and his reflections on the one-act play that fuses spoken word with a drum solo. As interesting as this premise is, I head into our talk trying to comprehend both the advantages and implications of performing something so personal.

Wojcik begins with apologising for “dragging out your day” in reference to the 7pm start-time that, after weeks of scheduling, I finally get a chance to speak with him at. As everything was being arranged, I had an image of a busy artist hopping from place to place and being, well, just an artist. To my surprise, Wojcik has a calm and delicate demeanour, and he gives me with full, undivided attention as well as an intimate insight into his work. When I ask about the lessons that he has learnt from his show, he replies very convincingly and with passion, that it’s “all about being. Being present – just being.”

I can almost hear the sighs as you read this, rolling your eyes and thinking: ‘well he’s a poet, and a resident artist at the Roundhouse at that, of course he holds some sort of philosophical view of life.’ Well, don’t many of us? For Wojcik however, this view comes from the painful experience of watching his grandfather – his dziadek – struggle and ultimately die from vascular dementia. How to Keep Time, is inspired by this. “I never played drums for him. This is me playing for him for the first time.” By doing so, Wojcik is able ‘to conjure him’ back, and he is there sat in the audience watching as he plays on his Roland TD electronic drum kit.

What are the complications, or rather limitations then I wonder as an audience to be watching something that is so personal that you can never fully be a part of, or fully comprehend? “It wouldn’t work if I drummed the whole time,” he says pensively. He goes on to detail the process of building memories through spoken word for the audience so that they can relate to the play more. The drums therefore represent this “loss and clash of language,” – the same one that dziadek experienced. The spoken word is a break from “how listening extensive drumming can be.” It also works to “build the audience into knowing him.” As for Wojcik himself, the night he performs the best are when he feels that he is intertwined with his grandfather. However, he is still aware of the rawness of the show: “I get carried away,” and has to try to remember that “he is performing for everyone” he tells me, almost laughing at himself. He concludes that he needs to “keep a hold of himself” throughout the Penned in the Margin produced play.

How do you keep a hold of yourself when dealing with familial loss – the loss of your Polish lineage, I ask Wojcik. He slowly begins to give different examples of how various family members dealt with the grief of “slowly losing someone for a year, a year and a half.” For Wojcik, it was important for him to remember that with dementia “the person is not lost, but they are different.” He felt as though dementia seemingly overwrote memories with his dziadek. “But I resisted that that with being present.” A simple notion but an effective one as he describes the main motivation for performing the one-act play. “When I perform I go back to him,” and with that, he paints this vivid imagery of old memories coming back into the present, where during the performance, he steps out of the present into the past, and the apogee of the show is this “tumbling of memory” and swiftly put, “everything is intertwined, we’re entwined.”

With all of this imagery and the intriguing philosophical discussions that have filled our conversation, I am both slightly amused and pleasantly surprised when the reason for Wojcik’s drum kit of choice – the Roland TD – comes up: “I can fit it in a bag, it’s convenient for travelling around.” Well, technically, the poet in him does still persist and prevail through as he goes on to expand, sighing and telling me the technological failings of the instrument: how it glitches, misbehaves, disrupts parts of the show by “actively causing problems on the night of a performance.” The drum kit’s failings force him to begin screwing and unscrewing parts of the kit mid-show and midflow. This, however, surely embodies the struggles and frustrations of a loss of language, and embodies the way his dziadek began to speak in “Polish English whispers” when his communication severed. In these moments, Wojcik adamantly tells me that he was “desperate to get through.”

As we finish, I realise that myself and Wojcik have been speaking for near enough two hours. A realisation that brings me back to his belief that, when all is said and done, “the only language we have is just being present.” Afterwards, I decide to just sit with my thoughts for a bit, and with that, I also decide that maybe, just maybe, my extensive to do list can wait ten minutes.

How to Keep Time: A Drum Solo for Dementia is playing at from 23-24 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Richmix website.