Science, Theatre and Dementia: An interview with Melanie Wilson

Written for Spoomfed:

After a few minutes with Melanie Wilson in one of the empty rooms at Shoreditch Town Hall, it’s evident how much the Wellcome Collection has supported her understanding of dementia, which forms the centre of her show, Autobiographer, at Toynbee Studios. The question, which is relevant to a lot of theatre that has such a formative relationship with science, is will this understanding be felt by the audience?

Wilson is not the only theatre-maker engaging with contemporary developments in science. Analogue Production’s 2401 Objects or Still Life Dreaming largely side-stepped the science in favour of a focus on the human issues, to great effect.

Meanwhile, theatre-makers like Lundahl & Seitl have brought the fringes of science into their art to combine our experiences of theatre with our experiences of scientific theories. By looking at things like presence and being in a sensory way, they directly embrace the unknown. Their work brings attention to aspects of human behaviour by shining a light on the audience.

Similar feats are attempted in Autobiographer, although Wilson’s work contains a more significant, if unconventional element of storytelling. With this new piece she explores the experience of dementia by challenging the linear timeline in which we tend to think of ourselves. “A dementia chucks everything in the air,” she says: “your identity, your memories, your orientation, so it becomes this experience without time.”

“It’s a myth,” she continues, “that people are these lucid, coherent things and then they develop this condition and it’s all marbles on the floor. We all go in and out of periods of feeling unified and clear and then these shattered periods where we question who we are and what we’re doing.”

Her take on dementia is informed by her own experiences with her grandfather and in part to the scientific mentor she met through Wellcome Collection, Professor Sube Banerjee. He creates reports on topics like prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to people with dementia to which the government responds. His suggestions require him to have an extensive understanding of the practical implications of issues like introducing anti-psychotics into a person’s life which Melanie was able to absorb with support from Wellcome Collection. “He’s very passionate” she says, “he’s animated and optimistic about the quality of life that people can have with dementia”

As well as the breadth of information Professor Banerjee gave her access to, Melanie belives that reducing the separation between audience and performers will be key in conveying this understanding – or lack thereof – to the audience.

“There’s a huge disparity of experience and no clear resolution to the issues that are still being debated” she says, “so I use the opportunity to be very direct and sincere towards an audience in the hope of getting a return. This alternates with beautiful, but passive passages that are more conventionally watched. I defer to the audience a little bit of what it’s like to experience the disease. For example, when someone you see as a stranger begins treating you like a loved one or when you’re asked questions that you are expected to have the answers to. It puts the audience in the shoes of the character and puts them very definitely in the same space as the performers. Some people know what to say and others don’t, which of course reflects how people react to those who have dementia.”

The sound is also extremely important. Probably best known for her sound work, Wilson created one of the most unforgettable shows of One-on-One Festival in 2010 which dealt with the experience of blindness. For Autobiographer, she says, “the sound does a lot in terms of the deafening disorientation and the extremes of anger and frustration. It helps to modulate the emotional landscape.”

Aware of the lack of understanding surrounding dementia and in particular the imprecision that goes into diagnosis (because of the nature of the illness rather than the fault of doctors), Wilson seems likely to create a production that is at least as interesting as its source material. “This show won’t fully apprise the audience of the experience of the disease,” she says. “But it reflects a lot of our fractured, limited understanding of the world.”

Click here to read Ricky‘s review of Autobiographer.

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