The second blog in an exciting series by Sleight of Hand who are presenting The Man Who at the Tristan Bates Theatre. It focuses on their experience of working with charities and support groups to help present the truth about neurological disorders.
I once worked with a director who asked if your character were to walk in and sit in the audience would they feel that what they saw was a fair representation of everything that they were? Would all aspects of them and their experiences, both good and bad, be represented in some way without judgment from the actor. It’s a good point, and something I am always reminded of when working on plays such as The Man Who. This play, based on Oliver Sacks book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, is a collection of scenes. Each one a snapshot of a patient-doctor interaction, and involves the investigation of each of the patient’s neurological disorders. This is not your usual visit to the GP, and while I would hope I could convincingly play someone with a bad cold, playing someone whose whole vocabulary has been reduced to literally two words is another matter entirely.
The first and biggest challenge was to gain a thorough understanding of these disorders. We did a lot of analytical research into how each neurological disorder would affect someone and there were lots of rehearsal discussions! It was really important that we didn’t get too serious and stuck on finer points but got up, and explored, not only the affect of the disorder, but also how we showed this internal struggle to the audience.
Movement work was a key process and we used Laban and Archetypes, as a starting platform. So, for example, we would play with the use of Efforts: assigning one to the disorder and one to the character and looking at the struggle between the two. This exploration would bring up yet more questions and we were continually confronted with the fact that the fundamental mechanics we use to perceive the world around us are completely unique to who each of us are. We can share experiences, but perception is something different. The big dilemma to us as Actors was and is: how can you really appreciate the way someone else views the world and therefore represent them, if the tools they use are ones you have no notion of. It would be like trying to act what purple tastes like to someone else. One of the characters, for example, has no concept of left; he can’t see left, forgets that he has a left, and can’t turn left. This brings up a lot of questions as to what can the character can actually see? How would his center of gravity be affected when he stands? Would he still gesture with his left hand even though he doesn’t know it is there? The research can only tell you in an analytical way what can and can’t be done, not how it feels.
Struck that the last thing we wanted was to present a stereotype, we were driven to find research that was off the page. We took the play to TLC Care’s Young Stroke Survivors support group, allowing us to meet and gain a first hand understanding of the people living with these neurological disorders – a stroke being the cause of most of the conditions within The Man Who.
The first impression was that they had an incredible strength of character. Every single person in the room had had the core of who they were shut down instantaneously, and they alone were left with the task of teaching every single part of their own body how to work again – an isolating, and incredibly frustrating journey. As I write this I know that I cannot do justice to any of these individuals with a few words on the page, but the whole experience left me humbled. Seeing their strength, humour and determination reinforced our aim of making the ‘patient’ character more than a disorder or a stereotype. It was quite nerve racking to present a scene of a patient with a neurological disorder to an audience of people who had struggled with that very same thing, but, well worth it! Without trying to sound too cheesy, it gave everyone in the room a springboard to open discussion and to connect and that is the magic of theatre.
This process once again affirmed how important theatre like this is, and how important it is to take on challenging subjects, because awareness is the first step. To tackle topics like this, you have to continually question, research, play, be honest and be humbled, and hopefully this in turn will inspire our audiences do the same.
Suzie Grimsdick graduated from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and has since worked on a variety of productions, most recently appearing in ‘Myths’ at The Blue Elephant Theatre. Suzie has been involved in ‘The Man Who’ with Sleight of Hand right from its beginnings as a scratch production at the Albany Theatre’s PlayGround Festival (with StoneCrabs Theatre Company – website: www.stonecrabs.co.uk).
The Man Who, stage one of the Ergo Sum Project, is running from March 23-28 at The Tristan Bates Theatre: call the Box Office on 020 7240 6283 for tickets.