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Sick of the theatre

There’s a rising trend for theatre-makers and other performers to create plays about their own illnesses – intimate narratives that arc from a moment of medical diagnosis to recovery, remission or some other resolution.

Michael Regnier

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Two women sit opposite each other. One woman wears a lab coat and holds a clipboard, the other is wrapped in a large shawl.

There are many reasons for this: it can be a form of confession or documentation of experience, or a way to reclaim control over an unruly body. Or it may represent closure, putting a period of chaos firmly in the past by making it into a story with a beginning, a middle and – crucially – an end.

But what is the audience expected to make of it? Perhaps we can satisfy a morbid curiosity in the pain of others. Maybe we find catharsis in watching someone present their experience of an illness. Either way, is there something about theatre that makes it a particularly effective space in which to share these stories?

A woman sits ona  chair on s atge with spoltight beaming down on her from above. She’s surrounded by a mess of cardboard boxes and loose sheets of paper.

In 2016, Bryony Kimmings, Tom Parkinson and Brian Lobel created an all-singing, all-dancing show about the reality of living – and dying – with cancer.

Diagnosing drama

It’s summer 2016, the Edinburgh Festival is in full swing, and I’m one of about ten people in an auditorium that could probably hold 100. We’re watching a one-woman play, an autobiographical story involving a series of physical illnesses, mental health problems, violence and trauma. “This is not a story of devastation,” the actor tells us. “Well maybe a little.”

I’m here thanks to a project called The Sick of the Fringe. My job is not to review the shows I see but to ‘diagnose’ them: rather than asking, “Is it good?”, asking “What can we learn from this?”.

As a science writer, I’m ready to engage with ideas around health, medicine and storytelling, but this show is so harrowing I don’t know where to begin. After the applause, I slink back into the night and do not attempt a diagnosis.

Sick stories

Brian Lobel, who started The Sick of the Fringe in 2015, studies performance and has lots of experience from both sides of the theatrical ‘fourth wall’.

After being diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001, Brian began making performances about it – and from his first show, ‘BALL’, he was kicking against the culturally dominant way of telling this story. The narrative he rejected was the kind to be found in books and films overtly about cancer, often centred on struggle and inner strength. Instead, he showed the “disgusting” parts of cancer: “the sperm bank, the catheters, and the hair loss.”

He discovered that many people came to see it with their own narrative already in place – they didn’t particularly listen to what he was saying and yet would still find it incredibly moving. He had created a space in which people could contemplate their own responses to experiences of illness, whether similar to his or not.

In a more recent show, ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’, the cast asked people to call out the names of family or friends who were ill at the moment. “It was raw,” Brian says. No one had come to the show in order to share those names but the names had come with them, carried on the tips of their tongues, because having someone close to them who was ill was probably a large part of their reason for coming in the first place.

Many shows about illness address the audience directly or invite them to participate, says Brian. In his own work, this is very much about a sense of community. “You’re talking and listening; hearing laughter, hearing sadness.”

Autobiographical authenticity

In shows that I’ve seen for The Sick of the Fringe, the performers often reach across the space between stage and audience. Most ask if any of us have experience of the illness in question; some talk to the health professionals they know will be in the audience, such as the stand-up whose routine about his stammer always attracts speech therapists. Others simply express their gratitude for us coming – and for them being able to be there with us.

It is powerful to see the same body that has suffered the insults and injuries of illness re-presenting those experiences. Because here is the inherent spoiler in any piece of autobiographical live art about illness: the performer is here, now, in the flesh; they have survived so far, at least.

Looking back on the show I couldn’t diagnose in 2016, I wonder if this was the point I had missed. That young woman had trained for a career in acting, then endured a series of events, any one of which would have been enough to stop many people in their tracks. Yet she was here. And if her show was more than a little melodramatic, maybe that was her saying that she was here on her own terms, as an actor – not only had she survived, she had succeeded in making and performing her story, receiving our applause.

A woman with a guitar sits at a desk. There’s a noticeboard behind her with words pinned up behind her: ‘Cancer show?’, ‘Ancient’, ‘Ideas’,  ‘Surgery’, ‘Marie Curie’.

Bryony Kimmings in Complicité’s production of ‘A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’.

Deborah Bowman is professor of bioethics at St George’s, University of London, and chair of Deafinitely Theatre. For Deborah, theatre and medicine share a focus on fundamental questions about the human condition: “That communal endeavour but also that deeply individual interpretative, subjective experience.”

When a performer presents their own experience of illness, the fact that theatre is live situates them as a specific person in front of the audience. Yet despite this individuality, the narrative is often exactly the same: diagnosis, wordlessness, the patient’s ‘fight’, shocking statistics, an unsatisfactory clinical encounter (often played for comic relief), and an ending that is either triumphant or tragic. The journey is so clear it almost writes itself, it seems.

“The language shifts around illness – in both directions,” says Deborah. “It can become very poetic and very metaphorical, and also very clichéd and very hackneyed.” Brian Lobel says people often rely on clichés because illness is still not really spoken about very often in art.

But, adds Brian, being ill is inherently theatrical: “My body caused a commotion. People looking at me, thinking about me dying, thinking about themselves dying.” He had to act strong, or allow himself to be weak, and he was constantly giving his medical history, telling the story of his illness. Creating performances allowed him to play with that story, challenge it and maybe even change it.

Theatre is sometimes seen as inaccessible, even intimidating. But on the fringe, says Deborah, theatre is often more inclusive. In this more open and democratic space, performers and audiences can work together to create new perspectives on sickness and health, new words and new meanings to help navigate illness, an inevitable part of all our lives.

About the contributors

Portrait of Michael Regnier

Michael Regnier

Michael is a science writer at Wellcome and a commissioning editor for Mosaic. Before writing about science for a living, he wrote plays; he’ll be returning to theatre in September 2018 with ‘An Execution (by invitation only)’.