For a performance art, like dance, music is an integral component to the piece - sometimes more so than the dancer’s movements. Individually, movements carry little, if any, meaning if not accompanied by the right music, because from the audience’s perspective, music, or sound, is often what first captures our attention.
A few days ago, I was perusing through Free Music Archive, a fantastic open-source platform to share and discover new music, and serendipitously came across this beautiful instrumental recording by a renowned, partially blind violinist (Professor Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu) from southern India. What struck me the most about this piece was its deceptive simplicity, a phrase many have used to describe Dr. Naidu’s artistry. Recorded around the 1940s, there is an element of rich disorderliness, or melodic fuzziness, to this piece that is rather challenging to describe with words.
The initial few seconds begin with that familiar crackling sound before merging with the melodies of the violin. The air is still, but as soon as the violin starts playing, the water molecule enters the scene and travels randomly around the room by spinning and colliding with other water particles - an attempt to represent Brownian motion in a biological environment. There’s an element of familiarity in this movement, because this is its natural state. That is, this is how water molecules move in its local chemical environment in the body. This familiarity then develops into a sense of optimism near the 40 second-mark, but around 1:15, the cadence rises and there is panic, or rather a change to the local chemical environment. This alteration is representative of the shift from a healthy cell to a cancerous one. The dancing water particle is still spinning and interacting with nearby particles, but movements are slower and more deliberate, and is conscious of this change a little before 1:38, which is indicated by a series of noticeably rapid rhythmic beats. Following this, there is acceptance (around 1:52) and the particle is fighting for its survival. Then the tone changes near 2:30 where the particle has to make a decision. I have yet to think of a conclusion, but hope to have it finalized in the coming weeks.
What is constant, though, throughout this recording is that element of rich disorderliness (or melodic fuzziness), which quickly settles into the background. But, does this fuzziness exist to mask the subtle “inaccuracies” of a piece of music that was recorded roughly 80 years ago, and why do we so often equate disorder with imperfection? Maybe it is these imperfections that help us better understand that part of ourselves and our natural world that we so desperately try to make sense of.
It seems to me the human story behind artistic representations of brain processes would make for a more engaging topic then simply seeing beautiful structures or formations on stage. That is to say, I believe the power of theatre rests on the insight an audience gains from landing within the world of the character so fully that they can start to see similarities between the character and themselves. On stage, when someone of differing backgrounds or class, culture or circumstance butts up against something challenging or existentially awakening, it can sometimes elucidate an empathetic understanding, especially for an audience who is able and willing to make such connections. In plays, as in other literary examples there are rising actions, inciting incidents, climaxes, and perhaps emotional peaks and valleys; and even when we find a character at some juncture very unique to them, even if it might seem there are no similarities or parallels one can draw, I believe it is then the spirit of the experience that might capture the spirit of an audience, if not the detailed letter in exact measure. In essence, I think bigger themes can emerge from the nitty-gritty in the details, and sometimes the little things can be the biggest of things.
What then can we show as we decide to depict cancer on stage? From the microscopic level of cellular division and defenses against necrosis and the like, to the emotional underpinnings of what a person and their closest network might go through in the fight, how do we navigate both worlds of the micro and the macro? How much do we show of a person’s story in order to get to the scientific facts? Is it necessary to know everything about a person in order to be moved by their experience? Or can we see simple semblances of relationships, snippets of moments, and momentary glimpses or slices of life, snapshots to get the gist. And in that case, are we cheapening the human experience in order to explore the scientific? I suppose there are narrative elements that will shine through when defining something as complex and all-encompassing as cancer.
In exploring some of these questions, I suppose we can see the power of storytelling. As we shift our attention to someone else’s story, perhaps, in turn, we may end up seeing our own from a different perspective. Doesn’t great literature bring to light some of humanity’s complexities in various shades and colors, with either subtle beauty or grotesque depth? I think on dueling figures (of opposing forces/viewpoints), characteristics we all might have within us, if we are willing and able to accept it. Characters likes of Count Vronsky or Levin in Anna Karenina; or Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. By seeing both types of people depicted, richly drawn too, and how they deal with challenges, I think we can connect to our own story, our own way of dealing with challenges. It’s not often we get to connect with our story in a new way, but I believe in a live theater setting, where the action takes place moment to moment, right in front of you, an audience might be able to more easily draw parallels to their own life, by simply receiving the story as it unfolds. The added step of reading and cognitively ingesting the story might make for a longer route to one’s own psyche, but I’m just speculating. And of course, this is all assuming your audience is blessed not only with all 5 senses, but also an open enough heart to let someone’s story in, in the first place.
That being said, making theater an inclusive enough space for members of your audience who might be deaf, or blind, or perhaps on the spectrum, can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. I have been in productions that have attempted to make shows accessible to these three populations, and I have also tried to produce shows with added efforts in advancing modes of communication to help reach as many people as possible. Making theater in an immersive way is another way to help audience members experience the story in a palpable or visceral way. By either diminishing or aggrandizing certain sensory elements, by selectively curating what an audience sees, hears, or senses, you can essentially put everyone in the same space, on the same page, and closer to your character’s experience, and their story as well.
From our conversation last week, Devika has helped me understand the efforts of some unsung heroes in the medical community: the MRI technicians who actually handle the day to day volume of people coming in to get MRIs. All day long they help administer some of the most important, and also sometimes the only measure of how cancer moves in the body. Either for routine checks, follow-ups, or first procedures people dealing with an onslaught of emotions come in and out of centers around the world, it is the technicians who take them by the proverbial and sometimes literal hand from the unknown to the crystalline. Knowing full well the importance of their work, and the importance of clarity in their images, they have seen the very smallest of us fight innately against something that only knows how to reproduce and feed off of what it sees. There is something deeply compelling there, in that fight, and not altogether non-human as I first thought, but something actually deeply human. The things our brain cells and tissues go through when facing cancer cells seems inherently dramatic now, and also full of conflict too, something that is deeply woven into the fabric of all storytelling.