Considering the vast panoply of diseases and disasters that can be visited upon a human body, there is probably nothing more frightening than a cataclysm involving the brain.
When our brain stops functioning properly, or stops altogether, nothing else matters. And those are the thoughts that went through Tannis Kowalchuk's flickering gray matter as she experienced a stroke.
These musings, and many others, are the foundation of the devised play Struck, opening this weekend at Cleveland Public Theatre. This collaborative work, performed on stage by Kowalchuk and frequent CPT visiting performer Brett Keyser, takes a non-linear look at a decidedly non-linear event.
Kowalchuk is a founding artistic director of the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL). Located in the Catskills, it is an organization dedicated to exploring actor-generated, or devised, theater.
One day in 2011, Kowalchuk was working on her nearby organic vegetable farm when things started going wrong. As Kowalchuk says, " I had been suffering from a headache for a few days. Then I started dropping things. It made no sense. I was the mother of a young child. This shouldn't be happening to me."
The effects of the stroke continued to worsen, including slurred speech and facial drooping. Eventually, after several erroneous diagnoses, it was determined she had had a stroke, and began physical therapy.
"In some ways, I came back very quickly. But there are still lingering effects. My fine motor skills aren't so good, I still can't play my accordion. But in general I was quite lucky."
As part of her recovery process, Kowalchuk began collaborating with other NACL artists, primarily Keyser, in an attempt to probe what happens when a body is failing and the brain is confused.
As Kowalchuk notes, "I had a lot of questions for a friend, who is a neurologist, and then we kept investigating other areas, such as the moment when you could live or die. Do we have a choice? Are people saving me? Why do we die?"
In the show, these monumental queries will be presented via various scenes, in Iceland and other places, where different entities appear. These include an angel (Keyser) and a brain doctor played on video by Kowalchuk's real-life neurologist friend, Allison Waters.
The three key people in this production have an admirable history with CPT. In 2008, Struck director Ker Wells and Kowalchuk teamed up as actors in The Confessions of Punch and Judy. And Keyser has appeared on these stages multiple times (and brilliantly so), in the one-man show Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man and as W. B. Yeats in Open Mind Firmament.
This will be the premiere of Struck, outside of a couple performances that were staged at NACL. In development for 18 months with several collaborators—including filmmakers and digital artists—the piece is meant to provide a sensory experience for the audience and reflect the insights that Kowalchuk brought back from her brush with mortality.
As she explains, "It was a real spiritual reawakening for me. I became aware of a universal force, I felt the prayers of others in my small town helping me. And all this at a time when I had no control of my destiny.
"So I feel an indebtedness to my community and the world. And I hope the audience can share those feelings of renewal and gratitude. It was a message to me to do something with my life, now that I was given a second chance."
Your first chance to see Struck begins this Thursday, March 21, and runs through April 6 at Cleveland Public Theatre. For reservations, call 216-631-2727.