Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be trapped in your own body? As part of UCL’s first ever It’s All Academic Festival, we’ve teamed up with the Birds of Passage theatre company to bring you Thought to Flesh, an extraordinary tale of Emily, a young woman who lives with Motor Neurone Disease. Combining physical theatre and spoken word, the production draws on true stories and research from the UCL Institute of Neurology in order to deliver a theatrical investigation into the condition.
Using symbolic imagery to express Emily’s experience and the science of MND, Thought to Flesh reveals the hidden worlds that lie beneath the surface of a body experiencing extreme circumstances. First seen at The Vault Festival, Waterloo, this production was conceived by Gareth Mitchell and Nathalie Czarnecki with UCL’s Dr. Rickie Patani. We caught up with Nathalie, who stars as Emily.
What can the audience expect from Thought to Flesh?
Thought to Flesh is based on a true story and seeks to give the audience an understanding of the positive and negative elements of Motor Neurone Disease. It is a condition that is painful, heart breaking and unfair to both the sufferer and those around them. Yet, despite the circumstances, there is somehow a remarkable hope and positivity that comes along with it. There is light: the incredible research that is centred on the disease, the willingness to live with it and fight with it and the courage it brings to people. And there is darkness: the degenerative effects of MND on the human body, the effect it has on the psychology and well-being of the patient, and how this can effect relationships.
What first attracted you to the role of Emily?
When I was offered the opportunity to tell Emily’s story, I felt somehow empowered. I was attracted to the role as it would give me an opportunity to fully understand, at an emotional and physical level, what it would mean to be dying from something so hurtful as MND. I felt excited to explore this and to live with the story. Emily never gives up, but she always keeps on trying and fighting through the challenges she is going through. In this way, she manages to be move beyond herself, her own expectations and those of others. Although her body is becoming weaker, mentally she becomes stronger.
How does the production benefit from its collaboration with the UCL Institute of Neurology?
It brings us real stories to work with. It has connected us to the MND community and also to the incredible scientific research behind the disease. It makes me feel that our work is legitimate, valued and important. It helps the production team to come closer to an understanding of the disease at a scientific level. At the same time, it also makes me feel that we are doing something good to the UCL Institute of Neurology by helping to bring complex research material into something concrete, material and understandable for non-scientists.
How do you prepare for such an emotionally intense role?
I do a lot of yoga, laugh a lot and spend a lot of time on my own. I also study the human body, trying to separate the body parts in order to feel how it would be to suddenly stop being able to move a hand, an arm or a leg. I read and research a significant amount about the disease, and have been meeting and listening to stories from people who have had previous family members dying from MND.
How do you think the production can help those affected by Motor Neurone Disease, as well as the people around them?
Some things are too difficult to talk about, or we can't express and yet need to. Theatre is a good place to communicate these kinds of things. I believe that this production is necessary to help people process whatever feelings they have centered on the disease.
What’s the most interesting thing your role has taught you?
My role has taught me to be happy with what I have and I feel so grateful for the smaller things I have in life. Somehow, it has given me the courage to always keep trying, to push myself further and to never give up.
What would you say to encourage people who might not have previously seen a production like this to come along?
The production demonstrates that working together makes you stronger. For artists, students, teachers or scientists, the coming together of the arts and science will hopefully inspire you to think differently about your own practice, too.
Thought to Flesh is being performed as part of the It's All Academic Festival. You can book tickets for the play via Eventbrite