Performance as knowledge

This week the artistic director of a local theatre company hopes to “start a conversation” about injury, illness, sadness, grief and hospital culture — through performance.

“We hope sometimes these things will go away because we prefer to be the person without them. But then after a while you go, that is a part of who I am.”

In 2008 Lois Brown was struck by an SUV and confined to a wheelchair for a time, but she vowed to make a full recovery. Almost seven years later the St. John’s actor, director and playwright is on her feet again and doing what she does best, but she also confronts the reality that she may never again be pain-free.

“There’s this realization—not really a revelation, but a realization—that you kind of work at, which is, ‘Pain is a part of who I am, so accept it as something that you sometimes have to deal with or think about. As an artist, that is a part of what I’m bringing to the table now — not necessarily in a negative way, but in a positive way. As an actor, or as a writer, I know what this is like. I personally know this — I’ve had this experience,’” she explained during a recent phone interview with The Independent in advance of her latest project, Injury Illness Pain Sadness Grief and Performance, a series of dramatic readings and dance performances that will run at various venues in St. John’s March 5-8.

“That’s kind of where people, especially those who work in performance, build their art from usually.”

Over four days Brown’s theatre company, Newfoundland.Artist.X (NAX), will feature performers who are either dealing with an injury, illness, pain or grief, or who have been influenced in some way by that particular theme.

“Much like the way injury, disease and chronic pain changes the individual person, creation of a performance or play envelopes the artist in a meaning-making process,” reads a Feb. 20 NAX press release. “This creation of meaning affects us as an audience and artist, and the way we view the nature of life.”

Through art, and with several of the events being followed by a panel discussion, Brown hopes to “start a conversation” about what it’s like to live with pain, illness, injury, sadness and grief, and about hospital culture.

“Just come and be a part of this pop-up community for three or four events and let’s just all be together for a little bit and think about these things,” she said.

Among the performers is Brown’s friend Leah Lewis, a counseling psychologist and play and creative arts therapist from St. John’s who now lives in Montreal. Lewis is also a dialysis patient and has been on a transplant list for years, so is no stranger to the event’s theme.

Her academic research is based on the experience of awaiting a new kidney, the most needed organ among the 5,000 Canadians currently on a transplant list, she explained during a recent phone interview.

Lewis focuses on “long-term and chronic complex illness from a grief kind of lens,” she explained, and on “not keeping research so far away from the average Joe that they don’t understand it.” Which is why performance and arts-based research are a significant part of what she does.

Her recent short film Good Grief, which she calls a performance piece, will screen Saturday afternoon at Memorial University’s medical school and will be followed by a conversation with Lewis and award-winning playwright Robert Chafe.

Leah Lewis
Leah Lewis: “Performance is a different kind of knowledge that we can teach and learn through.” Photo by Lorraine Goh.

“[Lois] was working with similar themes, and a lot of what I was saying made sense to her, so we were really able to come together on work that is themed around illness and pain experience and interactions with hospital staff and doctors, but also how our identities and our emotional states are affected by our illnesses,” Lewis recalled, explaining how she and Brown joined forces a few years ago when Lewis was wrapping up her PhD in Montreal. “Lois and I really connected on it because I was able to draw from her experience, and she from mine.”

“Ideologically my interest is in exploring themes of illness and hospitalization from a kind of lived experience, so performance is kind of a representation of lived experience. But it’s also a way for people to access that kind of knowledge, or that kind of experience, and learn about it. So that’s what arts-based research is trying to do — it’s trying to create a different perspective to represent knowledge, but also to make it accessible in a different way, over and above didactic discourse.”

The events kick off Thursday evening at LSPU Hall with 4 Very short plays and Experiences of Hospital Culture, featuring readings by Brown, Lewis, Chafe and Jane Maggs, and will continue into the weekend with a workshop for practicing artists hosted by Brown and local artist Thea Patterson Saturday evening at Pony Locale.

On Sunday Patterson and Sarah Joy Stoker will share the stage at Pony Locale, where Patterson will perform her piece the dance that I cannot do and Stoker an excerpt from her own The Worth Of.

Brown described Stoker’s piece as conveying her “grief and sadness” in relation to “the way we’re damaging our own health in terms of our inability to take care of the environment or the world we live in,” she said.

Meanwhile, Patterson’s dance “is a really interesting dissection of creation when you’re limited,” Brown explained. “She’s limited by so many things, and then she just invented these ways of giving the audience the same feeling as if they had watched a particular dance, just by taking apart different elements of the choreography.”

The performances will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Stoker, Patterson and Michelle Butler-Hallet. “Working with Pain and Grief” will be hosted by Mack Furlong.

Like Brown, Lewis is eager to hear what the audience members have to say in response to the readings, performances and discussions.

“I think they’re going to pull and observe themes and ideas out of it that I probably didn’t even consider, which I will love to hear,” she said.

There are also a few points she hopes to touch on through her own participation, and conversations she would like to have with participants and audiences.

“Grief is not just experienced when we lose somebody through death,” she said. “We experience it in our lives through lots of forms of loss, and illness is a really big example of that. But also…how illness shapes our identity and how we develop psychologically.”

And lastly, she said, “how performance is a different kind of knowledge that we can teach and learn through, and so to get the audiences’ perspective about a that.”

“Injury Illness Pain Sadness Grief and Performance” runs March 5-8 at various venues in St. John’s. Admission is free but donations will be accepted. For more information, including a full schedule of events, visit NAX’s website or visit the theatre company’s Facebook page.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.



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