Olivia Winteringham brings her ‘neurosurgical love-story’, A Journey Round My Skull to the Maltings on Monday 09 November. We caught up with the artist and talked about science, love and brain surgery.
This performance is inspired by a memoir written by a Hungarian satirist in the 1930s. How did it develop and why did you make it?
I started making this production about 7 years ago in 2007. I’ve always been fascinated by science, art and the link between the two. I like reading about the human body as a way of understanding how and why we work in the way we do. The brain in particular is a wonderful organ. It’s a 3lb lump of fat and we all have one regardless of age, sex, race. It’s a repository for all the memories of our experiences and a complex coordinator of the body. Around the time of thinking about this project we happened upon Karinthy’s memoir in which he wrote about his diagnosis of a benign brain tumour and the subsequent surgical treatment. It was written in the 1930s and gives an amazing insight into medicine and surgery of that time. It’s a deeply personal account, also darkly comic with some expansive musing on the nature of being human. Karinthy describes the auditory hallucinations he experienced as a symptom of the brain tumour pressing on his right temporal lobe, an area that is, in part, responsible for processing sound. Because he remained awake during his surgery he also describes the sound of each scalpel cut, each crack of bone. We thought: “what if we could reflect that in a theatre show, what if we could simulate something as intimate as brain surgery for a collective audience?
You created the work with the support of Welcome Trust and in close collaboration with three medical professionals. Can you tell us about that?
A Journey Round My Skull is a love story at heart, but also about the brain. It’s about how the condition of your brain affects your experience of reality. So the show is also about perception and has a big focus on sounds – both hallucinated and not. When researching new projects it’s a total privilege to be able to speak to and shadow professionals who work in the disciplines that we’re exploring. We were very lucky to be able to work closely with three brilliant medical collaborators: a professor of auditory neuroscience, an anaesthetic and a neurosurgeon. Welcome Trust were able to fund our project so we could work as a combined creative and scientific team to write the show. This meant it could be ‘medically accurate’ – I play a neurosurgeon so I needed to understand how brain surgery worked – and so that Sound Designer Iain Armstrong could create a realistic yet ‘filmic’ simulation of awake brain surgery. To create this we were allowed access to surgical wards to make real life recordings. Not only was this a glimpse at a previously off limits world but also the sounds in the surgical section of the production are taken from actual surgery.
The title of your show is A Journey Round My Skull. Whose Skull are we journeying around?
Because we cast the audience as the patient and because the awake brain is designed to sound like it’s the listeners skull, I’d say it’s the audiences’. However, you could also say that it’s neurosurgeon Julia’s skull as she is the one (re)telling the story and therefore remembering the love affair. The audience learn about this story over the course of the show as though they are suffering from memory loss caused by the slow growth of the tumour. The most intimate part of the show is the surgery, which the audience experience through wireless headphones. We have made our own binaural head, which is a dummy head with a microphone in each ear. When I speak into the head my voice is transmitted straight into the audiences’ ears. It means I can get really close and intimate and whispering or talk into the audiences’ ears, which is helpful when there is only one of me and many of them.
This is your first solo show as a company. What is your other work like and why make a solo show with a writer?
Our work is really different in form. We have made what we called edible theatre with food designs in which the narrative is conveyed through a three course meal. We have made work site-specifically: in decommissioned factories, the back of a van and 30 meters underground. We have recast a Greek revenge myth as an epic rock gig. I wanted to make this show as a solo show because it’s also inspired in part by personal experiences. We combined that with Karinthy’s story to create A Journey Round My Skull. My research as a theatre maker is currently about looking at how to tell a good story well and so we worked with experienced writer Nick Walker to see what that would look like as a text driven solo show.
What has your experience of performing the show been like so far?
I really enjoy doing this performance because I talk directly to the audience. They don’t need to talk back and this is made clear in the style of the performance. I love that direct contact as it’s about the relationship between me and them and casts them as a vital character in the show. We’ve been touring to venues around the country since last year and audience responses have been really positive. On the occasions when we’ve been able to bring our scientific and creative collaborators to post-show discussions, we’ve had some brilliant conversations about the sound design, the nature of love and the workings of the human brain.
I’m so looking forward to performing it again this autumn and to continue those conversations.
Book your tickets here for a Journey Round My Skull, ahead of the performance on Monday 09 November at 7.30pm.