Tannis Kowalchuk talks about her stroke, her recovery, neuroscience, and her new show STRUCK

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We chatted this week with STRUCK’S featured performer Tannis Kowalchuk.

STRUCK has its origin in a stroke you suffered in August 2011. How soon after your stroke did you decide to create a theatrical work that dealt with it. Can you walk us through the evolution of the work from your initial idea into what we now can see at the Here Arts Center?

After my stroke, recovery began with a week in the hospital and then, at home, sleeping, slow walking around the farm, some attempts at qi gong exercises that I had seen at a workshop at our theatre the year previous, physiotherapy, and after six weeks of that, I really wanted to get into our theatre to see who I was now.

Could I act? Sing? Remember lines?  My left hand couldn’t remember how to play the accordion.  I had to re-learn the songs that the right hand knew so well.  Going back to the theatre to practice balance and music and movement was the beginning of STRUCK. 

I started to write—memories seemed important.  I wanted only to hear piano music, so piano and Chopin became important. I asked my closest artist colleagues Brett Keyser and Ker Wells to work with me; Kristen Kosmas, a great writer, wrote some text after hearing my story, and I contacted Allison Waters, an ex-company member who had become a neuroscientist and she and I had many conversations.  I asked her to give me exercises and tests that I could do in the theatre, so we could see what was going on. 

It was a crazy idea to start the first day of “rehearsal” with a skyped psychological brain test—but that is what we did.  We spent one and a half years working on this sporadically because the show’s director, Ker Wells, lives in Canada.  We collaborated with more designers and writers. In March the Cleveland Public Theatre produced the world premiere, and we opened the NACL [North American Cultural Laboratory in Highland Lake, NY] season with STRUCK this past May.

Now here we are in NYC in the last week of a wonderful run at HERE.  I am fortunate.  The doctor said to me in the hospital, “Do you know how lucky you are?”  I looked him straight in the eye and I was thinking not just about having survived a major stroke, but about my whole entire life, and I said, “OH YES!” 

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Very closely. I am not the child of Icelandic immigrants but Polish and Ukrainian immigrants. Like Catherine, I am from Winnipeg, Canada.  I am a flower grower on my husband’s and my organic vegetable farm located not far from NACL.  The story of the grandfather who had a stroke is actually Brett Keyser’s story. He developed that.  STRUCK is a collaboration. We all brought our lives to this play.

In the play Catherine is told that a sizable portion of her brain is dead and is not going to return. Is that what you were told? In your performance you look like you are fully recovered. Is this in fact the case? How do you account for that?

A portion of my brain is dead.  I guess as Brett’s nurselike character says—“We have plenty of brains to spare.”  In truth, I cannot feel subtle sensations like temperature and texture on my left side.  I cannot play my accordion very well any more, and if you give me driving directions or any kind of spatial relations direction (like blocking in the theatre), I am a disaster. I cannot put A to B to C together very well.

STRUCK interweaves song, dance, memories, storytelling, multimedia and light in a way that resembles a musical fugue but also suggests what psychiatry calls a “fugue state,” a confusion of personal identity after a severe trauma. Do these two meanings of fugue mirror what you experienced following your stroke? 

FUGUE STATE?  That’s brilliant.  My sister is a psychiatrist. I will ask her about this. Yes yes yes!  I was really confused—not being able to move, to think straight, to stay awake— to feel the constant sensation of falling (mentally and physically). It was all so discombobulating!  The play is our 3-D version of the stroke.

You mentioned Allison Waters, your former colleague who left NACL to become a neuroscientist. She appears onscreen in the play as Catherine’s neurologist. Was she also involved in your treatment? Beyond her appearance in the play how did she contribute to STRUCK’s content?

Yes, Allison made me want to inquire into my state in a scientific way.  She has tools and processes and experiments to measure brain activity and response.  This work with her was the foundational work for STRUCK.  Bringing this science to the theatre was very exciting and profound for me.  I loved Allison as an actor and love her as a scientist.

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Brett and I work together as an ensemble, a team—he and I have a long history of making plays—since 1996.  We share a technique of devising so it was like baking bread without a recipe. We went into creative chaos together for eighteen months. Together with our director Ker Wells, contributing writer Kristen Kosmas , scientist Allison Waters, and the design collaborators—costumer Karen Flood, digital artist Brian Caiazza, technical director Zoot, technician Joe Murray—we came up with quite an interesting concoction.

You performed STRUCK earlier this year at the Cleveland Public Theatre. Have you changed it much in bringing it to New York? 

The play has continued to evolve—we keep working on it every time we get together with our director.  That’s the way we work. We learn from all the performances, from audiences, and we try to fine tune and clarify.  The piece is very poetic—not linear—so we need to work hard to make it as clear as possible for our audience and ourselves.  Yes, we made a number of changes before coming to NYC.  We worked for two weeks at NACL in Highland Lake, NY (our home) prior to the NYC premiere.

Creating STRUCK was clearly a journey of learning: about what happened to you during your stroke, your recovery, and the mystery of what is enduring in a person. What would you like to share about what you learned?  

That life, like nature, is as dependable as it is a surprise.  We can surely expect change and failure, success and extraordinary occurrences.  And sometimes there is just no explaining any of it.

What do you want the audience to take away from STRUCK?

Living is a gift to share and appreciate.  Sounds hokey, but it’s how I feel.

What’s next for Tannis Kowalchuk?

Another science-art collaboration called THE WEATHER PROJECT.  It is a huge one.  A collaboration with our town (Highland, NY), fellow artists, residents, community organizations, environmentalists, students, seniors, and a NASA scientist.  We will build a spectacular performance, hold symposiums, curate an art show and science exhibition about Climate Change and Weather. 

We need to talk about the weather, energy use, and our changing climate and we need to talk about it right now. The big play premieres August 2014 outdoors in the Town of Highland where NACL Theatre is situated.  I am the director and we received an NEA Our Town grant to do this project.

Read more about STRUCK and buy tickets for the remaining performances.

Watch a short trailer about STRUCK.