Published  18/05/2015

Shannon Yee: ‘It’s one step better than walking in somebody else’s shoes’

Shannon Yee: ‘It’s one step better than walking in somebody else’s shoes’

After a life-threatening brain infection, artist Shannon Yee found herself in hospital paralysed down one side and with part of her skull removed. She explains that her latest work, Reassembled, Slightly Askew, is an attempt to make sense of her experience


In the run up to Christmas 2008, Shannon Yee (born 1978) and her partner Gráinne Close both had colds. When Yee began to see strange auras and slur her speech, however, Close rushed her to hospital, where it was discovered that Yee had a sinus infection that had progressed into a life-threatening subdural empyema, a rare brain infection, which, had it gone undetected for another hour, might have claimed her life. As it was, Yee spent three months in hospital, where, after a craniotomy to remove the pus and alleviate the pressure, a section of her skull was placed in her abdomen to keep it safe until she was well enough to have it replaced.

During her time in hospital, which involved intravenous antibiotic treatment and a second (and, later, third) craniotomy when the infection returned, Yee was left paralysed down her left side for approximately three weeks. As a result of the infection, she now lives with an acquired brain injury, which affects her cognitive, emotional, behavioural and physical abilities – albeit not noticeably so from her outward appearance.

From early on, Yee, a playwright, knew that she was going to use her experiences to produce a new work. About a year into recovery, she began the creative collaboration that would lead to her immersive sonic artwork, Reassembled, Slightly Askew, which takes the audience on a whirlwind ride through her experiences of being, as the title suggests, “disassembled, and reassembled, slightly askew”. When I went to Belfast for the preview of this new work, despite having already met and spoken at length with Yee, I didn’t know what to expect. Arriving at the designated side room in the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC), I was met by a nurse, who asked me to fill out a form and then tagged me with a medical bracelet. I was led into a darkened room – scented with antiseptic handscrub – and shown to my bed, where I was to spend the next 48 minutes, with headphones and an eye-mask, being transported to the intensive care unit where Yee woke up after her craniotomy, hearing the voices of Close, Yee herself, her neurosurgeon and nurse, and, after her release, some of the sounds that surround us every day, but which we don’t notice, unless, like Yee, we have suffered something that makes us hypersensitive to noise. Experiencing this work really is something beyond words. Even Yee’s consultant neurosurgeon confessed: “I thought this was going to be something ‘arty-farty’. I had no idea it would affect me so profoundly and viscerally.” The work has potential on many different levels: as an art installation, as a theatrical piece and as a teaching tool.

I talked to Yee about the process of making the piece and about her hopes for its future.

Anna McNay: At what stage of your recovery did you know that you were going to make a work out of your experiences?

Shannon Yee: I always knew in some way, I think. I don’t remember much from the early days in the hospital, but one of the first things that was coherent – although that could be negotiable because I was on a lot of morphine – was looking around the space and thinking to myself: “I’m lying here in a bed, sleeping with a bunch of strangers. I am getting washed alongside a bunch of strangers. This would make a crazy fringe show.” I’d never been in hospital before and suddenly there I was, a hole in my head and unable to move the whole left side of my body. I had double vision and no idea of how I’d ended up there. I was struck by, all of a sudden, being transported into this place that was so different from what I last remembered.

A lot of people ask if it’s been cathartic, presumably wondering if I intended to make a piece for therapeutic purposes, but it was never like that. I made the work because that’s what I do to try and make sense of myself and the world around me. So I knew I was going to make a work, and I knew that sound and movement would be central to it. I had to relearn how to walk and there was no guarantee that I’d ever regain power or control over my left side again. I couldn’t see a lot of things, but my hearing was still kind of there. I had a heightened sense of hearing – and I now have noise sensitivity – and this and the not knowing if I would regain movement in my left side was terrifying. So I knew that sound and movement would be key aspects of the piece because they were so profound to me and I wanted to somehow integrate them.

AMc: I was really struck by the amount of detail that you seem to remember, though, even from the really early stages. Are these all things that you do actually remember yourself, or did you have to refer to your partner, Gráinne, or to your medical team?

SY: In the very early days, Gráinne had kept a journal, just for the purposes of her sanity really, to help her keep track of what people had told her, what the medical staff had told her. Then, when I started to be able to regain a bit more control and come back to myself a bit more, I started keeping a journal again, too. Part of the process of pulling the piece together was going back through all of those journals. I also got copies of my medical notes and, of course, I asked loads of questions. You know when kids say: “Tell me about the day I was born!” For a long time, when I first got home, I was almost like that. Together, Gráinne and I just tried to reconstruct the narrative, because memory is a cognitive process and, when the brain has undergone any kind of trauma, it’s more focused on keeping the kidneys working and keeping the heart pumping than processing anything from your short-term memory down into your long-term memory. So, yes, the narrative has been reconstructed by a lot of people.

AMc: Did you start working on it pretty much as soon as you were back home?

SY: It took me about a year before I was able to start making something because I wasn’t sure how at first. I had met Anna Newell [the director] a long time ago and I remember having had a coffee with her when she was still at Queen’s [University, Belfast] and saying: “At some point, we should really work together. I don’t know what the right project is yet, but …” So we met up again and I said: “Look, this is what I want to do.”

I knew Anna had a lot of experience working interdisciplinarily and it was that aspect that was really exciting to me. She knew Paul [Stapleton, the composer/sonic artist], she knew Stevie [Prickett, the choreographer], and I knew Hanna [Slättne, the dramaturg], but Anna also knew her, so it was really Anna who galvanised the correct team alongside me and who really believed in the project and its potential from the outset. It was only a year or so after I’d been in hospital, so I was in a very different place from where I am now. I was just really fortunate to know such warm, talented artists whom I could share those vulnerable, intimate moments with and who were passionate and moved by them.

AMc: Was there any point at which you felt you were maybe becoming too vulnerable or exposed?

SY: I didn’t feel any anxiety about talking about the really dark time when I was lying there with a hole in my head and was really frustrated and wanted to do damage to it – although Gráinne, even though she’d been right there beside me throughout, didn’t know this until she heard the piece. I didn’t have a problem talking about that though because it was my stuff, so I could make that call. It was the intimate moments that she and I shared that I felt more nervous and protective about. Exposing us. Because it was such a hard time for her, too. She brought home somebody who was fundamentally the same, but there were a lot of things that had to be re-established and reworked – stuff that she certainly hadn’t signed up for.

AMc: I thought that came across really well though – that balance of its being very much your story, but also having her there from almost the very first moment, and therefore its being a joint story to some extent. You say in the short film that is shown after experiencing the work that you think it is a story of hope, which it is, but my personal take on it was that it’s a story of love and strength in a relationship, and how important that is.

SY: That’s great to hear, particularly because of the situation in Northern Ireland right now with regard to same-sex marriage. It was the last place in the UK to decriminalise homosexuality and, paradoxically, by fluke, owing to a direct ruling from Westminster, it was the first place in the UK to allow public civil partnerships. Now it’s the last place in the UK to legalise same-sex marriage. Apart from love, of course, one of the reasons why Gráinne and I had our civil partnership was because we wanted to make sure we both had next of kin status – and little did we know how significant this would become for us in just a few years’ time. So it’s really great to hear that comes through, although it’s not necessarily a piece about politics.

AMc: Yes. But that’s probably also the best way to have an effect – to present a work that people will go to without expecting it to be political. You said that you knew early on that the work was going to principally use sound and movement. Did you know Paul’s work already and can you explain a little about binaural microphone technology?

SY: No, I didn’t know anything about binaural microphone technology before this. It’s actually very simple yet effective. How we cognitively perceive sound is affected by the height of the head, the shape of the ears, even the size of the body. Binaural microphones capture these subtleties in space. By using them to record at the point where we hear, when you listen back on regular headphones, it makes you feel you are physically at the scene, with the sounds floating around you in space. It was very exciting for us as an artistic team because, as far as we know, binaurals haven’t been used before in dramatic narrative in this way. We were using a strong, rigorous process of integrating sonic arts technology, dramatic narrative, choreography and, obviously, sound medical knowledge and expertise.

AMc: The technology adds to it as well because there is that sense of disorientation and not knowing where you are, although you are on some level aware that you’re lying in a hospital bed, in a gallery. Can you say a little about the role of the choreographer, since that’s a role I’d usually associate with dance or a stage piece with actors moving about?

SY: Stevie explains his role quite well. Initially, he was, of course, also struck by the lack of physical bodies and then he thought his role was going to be about the movement of sound. But, as we began to work on the piece, he realised it was much more about considering the audience members’ awareness of their own sense of movement within the audio space, thinking about movement from a still point and how you can create that sense of the world shifting around you, rather than thinking about your own body moving in space.
There’s always that question of form and content, when you’re creating work. What’s so exciting about this for me is that it’s one step better than walking in somebody else’s shoes. It’s getting inside somebody’s head and allowing an über-first-person perspective of the hidden disability of brain injury without actually inflicting the trauma. The content is about making visible something that is so invisible and private, but that has tremendous effects from inside out.

AMc: Not just in the early period of recovery that you’re talking about either. The ending is really impactful and quite visual as well, with the snow, but it raises questions about what happened next and what you are still living with today.

SY: Yes. It was very challenging to narrow down what we were focusing on in the story and what time frame to cover, choosing what stayed in and making a clean narrative. Really, the piece captures about nine months: being in hospital for three months and then the first six months after going home, which were very bizarre.

AMc: Were there specific parts that you knew from the outset had to be in?

SY: Yes. There are some that were in the first draft and have not been touched since. A lot of the abstract poetry and the wrestling with the brain hasn’t been touched from the outset. What else? The mania and the emotional rollercoaster, which was written in the script as “neuro-Zorbing”. You know when you go Zorbing and you get yourself in that big plastic bubble and roll down a big hill and scream and are totally out of control? That was what I felt like. Also, the period before I got sick again. And the snow on the logs. The dramatic points of the story were always going to be there.

AMc: You are a playwright. Reassembled, Slightly Askew is sort of theatrical, but it’s being marketed more as an art piece. How and why did you make that decision, and do you think it’s helpful to push it one way more than another? The current Northern Ireland tour, for example, takes in a number of arts centres, but also the Derry Playhouse.

SY: Yes, it is a hybrid of lots of forms and people don’t know quite where to put it or how to market it. In 2012, courtesy of my first Arts and Disability Award Ireland, I was able to test out both settings: the Pick and Mix Festival at the MAC but also the Arts and Disability Forum Gallery. I tried it out and saw that it could go both ways. It’s just about everything that happens around it and alongside it really.

AMc: Apart from the nurse facilitator, it has not got a cast of actors that need to go along with it, as such.

SY: Yes, and this is really exciting from a production point of view because you don’t have to rehearse anything and a nurse can be easily trained up.

AMc: It’s pretty much a ready package that can travel on its own.

SY: Yes, as long as I can get beds or spaces in which people can comfortably lie down, we can do the piece – and this is very rare for theatre. I was in Manchester at the British Association of Neuroscience Nurses conference in October last year, and I took six sets of headphones, a laptop and some eye-masks and we did a sample in a hotel room where people were sitting upright for 15 minutes. Even within those 15 minutes, the feedback was that people felt really transformed and already were thinking about their practice differently. So I think the potential of the piece is really exciting. I believe the project and I are ready to reap the benefits of the enormous amount of hard work, time and artistic enthusiasm that has been invested up until now. Certainly it’s thanks to a lot of funding support that’s made it happen, too: the Wellcome Trust; Arts and Disability Award, Ireland; the Small Grant Award and the Arts Council, which is making the tour possible; and, of course, the MAC.

AMc: You just mentioned the medical conference you were at and the nurses saying that Reassembled, Slightly Askew was helpful to them with regards to their practice. Obviously, there is that aspect to it as well – aside from being artistic and theatrical, it has huge potential as a teaching tool. Are you going to push it at all in that direction?

SY: Yes, definitely. I think it would fit really well into a half-day’s training and there’s been interest from some of the different medical schools and health training trusts.

AMc: Beyond the scope of head injury as well? I think it would be applicable to almost any hospital scenario.

SY: That’s the feedback that we’ve heard, too. It’s gone through rigorous focus groups over the past few years and the feedback that we’ve got is that it’s valuable for anybody, including anybody who is a carer or who knows somebody who is suddenly not in control of their body, which is something we all take for granted. Everybody does know somebody who has experienced some kind of brain trauma: whether it’s a stroke or a brain tumour or concussion or an infection or meningitis. Doing this has made me realise how vulnerable we all are.

AMc: One of the visitors who was coming out of the work as I was going in made the comment that he was going to go home and be a lot kinder to his wife. Another came out saying it was life-changing. What would be your ideal audience response?

SY: Some of what I’ve already heard is that somebody who works in a support organisation said this needs to be mandatory in training. I’ve heard this also from neuroscience nurses. I also heard a young twentysomething whippersnapper of a guy, who kind of bounced out, and I ran into him the next day, saying that he was still thinking about it and that it had really made him take stock of all the things he took for granted and didn’t think about. So I hope it has that resonance and gives people a chance to reflect, be it personally or professionally, because even though it is something that is very personal, it has so much potential on a larger scale.

Bizarrely, I’m actually a very private person and the first time I heard it the whole way through, I thought: “Oh, fuck! Oh, my god! It’s too late now.” When you make any work of your own, you feel exposed, but how much more exposing could this be? So I hope that this helps to make people aware of brain injury and, certainly from Gráinne’s story, that families and carers and friends might understand that some of the ups and downs and frustration and confusion and fear is totally normal. And the guilt they might feel. When I got discharged from the hospital, I was too well in some ways – I didn’t go on to the brain injury rehab unit, I went home and waited for community brain injury services to get in touch. I went through a lot of confusion and guilt, thinking: “I know how to walk again, I have my speech, I’m not as bad as I could be, but I’m not OK, there’s something going on.” To have to try to figure out what it was and to have to try to quantify it to [get] Disability Living Allowance was the most upsetting and degrading thing. Filling out those application forms was re-traumatising. To try to find some validity knowing that you can’t see it from the outside and you only see the effects of my chronic fatigue and the overload, which makes me seem like the worst person in the world. The root behind it is something you can’t know – except for maybe now through this piece. So I hope it travels and continues to build a positive momentum and makes people more aware.

Shannon Yee: Reassembled, Slightly Askew is touring in Northern Ireland during May and June 2015. Metropolitan Arts Centre, Belfast, 30 April – 5 May; Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick, 6-10 May; The Playhouse, Derry, 11-15 May; Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart, 18-22 May; Burnavon Arts Centre, Cookstown, 25-29 May; Island Arts Centre, Lisburn, 1-6 June; Arts & Disability Forum’s BOUNCE! Festival, 3-6 September.


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