TxD 2017: Shannon Yee’s Reassembled, Slightly Askew at the Toronto SummerWorks Festival

Date: 4 August, 2017

This year, as part of our TxD 2017, we are pleased to present Shannon Yee’s production, Reassembled, Slightly Askew, in conjunction with Sun Life Financial Canada. TxD is the artist exchange between the Toronto SummerWorks Festival and the Dublin Fringe Festival. For show details and tickets, please click here.

Reassembled, Slightly Askew, produced by Belfast-based artist Shannon Yee, creates an intimate, sensory experience centred in sound and movement, based on Shannon’s hospital experience due to a rare brain infection. In December 2009, Shannon began to show symptoms of what appeared to be a normal sinus infection. Determined to fight it off and get on with it, as many people do, she ignored it until the symptoms got much worse. Fast-forward to a CT scan, diagnosis, and a shared hospital room later, Shannon decided that her experience would make a fantastic fringe show. “For me, everything was invisible” –she experienced cognitive and aural fatigue and difficulty with emotional regulation within the first year (some of which continues to this day), and was inspired to create a piece that represented what she was feeling. Her experience led her to write to stay sane. “When the world around changed so dramatically, all I could do was write to make sense of it.”

 Throughout the Reassembled performance, audience members lie on a bed wearing an eye mask and headphones, to allow themselves to become physically and mentally immersed in Shannon’s story. Due to the intimate nature of the show, each performance allows only eight people at a time. For 80 minutes, individual audience members are essentially given a private tour of Shannon’s life during her brain infection.

To physically create the show, Shannon started off “with a whole load of stuff.” She compiled a dossier of material, made up pieces such as her medical notes, sections from rehab, workbooks like mazes, questionnaires that she completed, and images of what soundwaves looked like.  She knew that she wanted to create something that wasn’t a traditional theatre experience, and that movement and sound needed to be central aspects of the production. She wanted people to get inside her head to experience the immense noise sensitivity after getting out of hospital and her difficulty filtering and focusing information—aspects to which people who have never experienced brain trauma have had little exposure.

To craft this experience, she partnered with medical and theatre professionals to create a binaural theatre show. Binaural technology, used in sonic arts, spatializes sounds. Unlike regular microphones, they sit in the ears or, in expensive versions, as a head on a stand. Belfast has the only centre where you can spatialize sound, “allowing you to fully surround the listener with this world, and mess, or as we call them, ‘fogs’ of sound.” With her team, she embarked on a journey of discovery to determine how these technologies would work for a theatre audience, and, in doing so, had to come up with a shared language, understanding, and shared conventions across the disciplines of theatre, movement, sound, and science to create this intriguing experience.

In 2010, Shannon was able to start this research courtesy of an Arts & Disability Ireland Award, administered by Arts & Disability Forum in Belfast. The working title of the show was Recovery but as the five years progressed and as she “owned that part of my identity,” she realized that her experience was not a recovery, but a process of disassembly and reassembly, with some areas of her brain remaining slightly askew.

As the show came together, grants from The Wellcome Trust, Belfast, allowed for the process of production and also for the testing of the show on focus groups constituting neurosurgeons, head injury nurses, neuropsychologists, and the general public. Remarkably, Shannon notes that “even in a short ten-minute sample, all of [the medical professionals] said that they would change their practice…which is tremendous.”

Reassembled hasn’t yet gained enough recognition in the healthcare world, largely because of shrinking resources in the healthcare sector, but that’s an area where it will hopefully make headway. “But we have to look at the way it’s presented. Currently it’s a very limited audience which is part of the effectiveness in a theatre setting. But then when you look at budgets for medical training…how can we get 30 people in? So, we’re working on that. Hopefully it will have a very long life and a very relevant life,” both for people who have acquired brain injuries, and for family and friends.

Shannon notes that the target audience for the show is not people who have experienced brain trauma. She always had the idea that she wanted to give people the experience of being inside her head, and to take the audience on a journey to experience how her brain changed. For her, it was “a journey of terror and discovery and humour, but above all, hope.” Further, this compelling intersection of science, art and technology makes it an enriching learning experience on a personal level for anyone.

This highly participatory experience has led to many positive reviews. One audience member in the medical field even told Shannon that he had expected something “arty-farty,” but that he “’had no idea it would affect me so profoundly and so viscerally.’”

Given that Reassembled experience requires audience participation both mentally and physically, the show may be intense for some people, since you are completely aurally and physically immersed. But Shannon reassures her audiences that they “can always opt-out of the crazy ride” by taking your eye mask and headphones off.”.

One challenge Shannon faced when creating Reassembled was how to avoid it being too technologically deep at the loss of a story. “Always the challenge when you’re making work is marrying form and content.” Further, it can be a difficult show to describe: “people kinda go, ‘so I lie in a bed and I put an eye mask on and I listen to something and that’s theatre? I can’t take my pint in with me?’”

Another challenge that Shannon faced, and that many artists in Northern Ireland are now facing, is that Northern Ireland has cut arts funding in the past several years, which has led to artists either professionally or physically leaving the arts or the state. The lack of funding makes it harder for artists to challenge themselves and to take the creative risks that they want to and that are necessary to develop artistic vision and reach. As Shannon notes, it is “quite disheartening and terrifying.” Further, it limits the collaborations between artists and the kind of work that gets produced.

Luckily for Shannon, her collaboration between arts and science for Reassembled, lends to art what’s seen as a more practical aspect. Importantly, however, it still allows her to form art for art’s sake, just with a relevant connection to socially important themes.

Though Shannon claims that her brain injury did not create a lightbulb moment for her, it was transformational for her trajectory as an artist. “It opened a lot creatively in terms of potential and been a valuable and enriching process.”

Currently, Shannon is on to her next project, which also forays into uncharted territory, this time, with video projection and mapping onto the physical body.

In January, Reassembled will be presented at High Performance Rodeo in Calgary and then at PuSh Festival in Vancouver. In the meantime, make sure to book your ticket to Reassembled in Toronto from Friday, August 4th to Tuesday, August 8th. Tickets are limited, since each performance only allows for 8 audience members. Shannon would like to thank Culture Ireland, whose grant made it possible for Reassembled to attend SummerWorks. The full show schedule at the SummerWorks Festival can be accessed here.

For more information, visit the Reassembled, Slightly Askew website and the Reassembled Facebook page.