Reassembled, Slightly Askew walks the line between art and public outreach

This year’s PuSh International Performing Arts Festival presents Shannon Yee’s Reassembled, Slightly Askew. Created in Ireland, this experiential show has been running for three years and is designed to simulate what it’s like to live with brain trauma or injury. It seems almost inconceivable that the audience would want to subject themselves to such a simulation for 48 minutes during their leisure time, but those wanting a taste of experiential performance art will find something special in Shannon’s presentation.

A dark journey

Reassembled, Slightly Askew begins in the bar of the Cultch, a performance space off of Commercial Drive. In terms of interactive performances, the lack of set-dressing was a lost opportunity. It is hard to believe that you are a patient being admitted into a hospital when stools line the counter of an unstaffed bar behind you.

A man dressed in what could be a nurse’s costume asks you to fill out an admissions form, which is actually an audience survey. After all eight of the show’s audience fill out the form, they are led into a small room where the man outlines the layout of the show: a 48 minute performance and a 25 minute behind-the-scenes documentary. He offers you the choice of leaving before the video if time is needed to process.

Listeners enter the blackout theatre, snuggle into prepared hospital beds and have headsets and eye masks put on them. That’s when you realize this performance is not about you. This is Shannon’s story — a transformative experience with a brain disease. The first thing you notice is how crisp the audio is. The honking and buzzing of urban life are set behind Shannon’s vocalization of her grocery list. This is the closest to normalcy you will get in Slightly Askew.

The binaural audio puts you in a daze that simulates the symptoms and side effects of brain trauma like hallucinations, drowsiness and extreme sensitivity to noise, amongst others.

When theatre is meant to be grueling

The show’s effectiveness is built on a contrast between sympathy and empathy. You feel sympathy when the screeching audio persists for a few minutes that feel like eternity. You may dig your fingers into the hospital bed through the pain, then realize that as close as this may be, you will never understand what it is actually like to have your body betray you.

Empathy is the warm compassion of Shannon’s partner, one of the few sounds that is warm and familiar. She draws listeners in, grasping for normalcy or some shred of comfort. Although she may be a stranger, she embodies family, friends and the warmth and protection that they bring. The deep connection between Shannon and her partner is enough to bring joy and a moment of rest in an otherwise gruelling show. Moments like these make Shannon’s narrative much more than an empathetic exercise, shedding light on the condition while portraying a powerful and compelling story that is filled with twists and turns.

This is where Shannon’s artistry shines.

The audio is designed with such meticulous care that subtle details become powerful forces. One such moment is when Shannon is released from the hospital and allowed to recover at home. What felt like a year in recovery was merely revealed to be three weeks long.

At home, Shannon tests her limits and goes into town to buy toothpaste. Much to your relief, she makes it. But things become overwhelming as she walks down the aisles trying to remember what to buy. Once it is over, you realize that not one person stopped Shannon to ask “Are you ok?”

It is these muted details that have the biggest impact on listeners.

Listen to the message

While Shannon’s artistry crafts a piece of art that audiophiles and experimental art lovers will enjoy, she most importantly tells a story that desperately needed to be told. Throughout the three years of this production, Shannon has brought Reassembled, Slightly Askew around the world and even straight to health professionals to help them better understand their patients’ experiences and reveal new paths for medical training.

Although the narrative ends with a somber, harmonic song, there are still those who are or were unable to make it so far down the road of recovery. For the unlucky ones, Shannon keeps this show running, even as she continues with other artistic endeavours.

But if increased engagement is the goal, showing Reassembled, Slightly Askew at a pricey performance festival is questionable. However, it is indisputable that Shannon deserves artistic recognition for such thoughtfully crafted work.