On February 9th, 2018, I attended 'Beyond My Control', a performance about epilepsy, at Aberystwyth Arts Centre.
Well, that's not quite true. It wasn't about epilepsy, as such, it was a performative explanation of the latest research into the mathematical modelling of epilepsy.
It was Sci Art on the stage.
The premise was devised by Exeter Northcott Theatre's Artistic Director, Paul Jepson, and a mathematician at the University of Exeter, Professor John Terry. It is described on the official site website as being
"The first iteration of a new collaboration between the two organisations... intended to facilitate public engagement for the University of Exeter's world class research.
Part game-show, part improvised domestic drama, part maths lesson, the aim of BEYOND MY CONTROL is simple: to better understand the condition of epilepsy, and explain some of the frontline research being undertaken to address it. The show takes audiences on a journey of understanding through the characteristics of the condition, verbatim testimonies of lived experiences, mathematical modelling of the brain itself and interactive improvised scenes that allow audience members to really get to grips with what's going on inside our heads- and provide a sense of what the future might hold for the millions of people who experience seizures and epilepsy within their lives. "
As this blog is a testement, I am professionally interested in alternative modes of knowledge representation - particularly, through performance. I am also though, a person with epilepsy. Thus, this was about as perfect a potential match as could be imagined. It was also, consequently, likely to be a hugely emotional experience.
So off I toddled, on my own. I always prefer to attend the theatre on my own for a first showing of something wherever possible. Ditto with films, radio plays, television etc. This is because I want to be able to concentrate. To immerse myself fully, to let that immersion flow and unfold, like a river flooding, finding it's own way, unchecked by other voices. Including my own. Once I've done that, if something resonates (or I have to review it), then I like to return in company. The tension and agreements that then ensue are always informative; about the person(s) I'm with, about myself and about the production in question.
Unfortunately in this instance, the show was only showing once in my locale. In fact, it was the last of it's run. Otherwise, I would have gone again - and again - and again, with as many people as I could muster!
Simple - because it was brilliant.
The host, Stuart Cottrell (bottom 'portrait'), set to putting everybody at their ease immediately. Relaxed, confident, not over-polished, he came across as being a safe pair of hands in which to entrust our attention. The show was immediately enigmatic. The actors were of an equally high standard, the set and staging was bright and uncluttered. The maths, was hard.
The difficulty of the maths though, was not a problem (no pun intended). Rather, such was the ease of delivery that I watched people around me lean forward to follow complex equations. Nothing was dummed down, yet nothing was out of reach - and THAT, is the sweet spot which is so very difficult to attain.
If you watch the short video on the official website, which I linked to in gold above, you will see a clip of basically what was performed. Each of the four players had a role of influence which personified how the brain works under pressure. Various scenarios were presented and so we could see how the spheres of influence, as represented in the mathematical model, could behave in differing brains and brain states.
Members of the audience were invited to to exert pressure on these influences, to see if they could trigger a conceptual seizure. The combination was a humorous and infinitely relatable family scenario, with performative pressure. As the model was acted out before me, I suddenly realised how part of my brain worked - or rather, frequently didn't! That was a lifetime of uncomprehension, resolved in an hour.
Well, partially resolved (*neuro gag alert*). The modelling doesn't seek to have all the answers and it applied more to other types of seizure than to my own peculiarities - but nonetheless, I felt seen. For the first time, I saw that other people understood - and that it was all okay.
I'd therefore been right about the emotional part. The intellectuality of the experience though, contained that. The lack of sentimentality and the impersonal nature, made it without stress. There were recordings of people speaking about their own neuro health, along with that of loved ones - that was tough listening. It was just long enough to strike home without becoming exploitative though and the flexible fluidity of the improv standard kept everything else just as real, only lighter.
At the end, there was a Q&A with two of the mathematicians, one of whom was also one of the actors. This was the only clumsy part, mostly because it was a challenge to hear the audience questions and also because some of the responses were necessarily lengthy. It was, however, still fascination. I would have liked to have had an interval, ideally, between the modelling and the discussion, with the discussion then having gone on for longer. I felt that there was a lot more to unpack and that I, at least, needed a little bit of space in which to catch my breath. I would also have liked some links to the research itself, rather than just being let loose back into the world with no clear direction as to how to follow everything up.
That said, the whole thing was only about an hour long. I can only commend all concerned for having achieved an innovative and entertaining piece of complex communication. Thank you - I look forward to seeing more of these fusions in the future.
Image copyright: Exeter Northcott Theatre