Nick Inspires [by James Wenley]
"He can’t walk or talk but he pushes weights at the gym that would have me in a crumpled heap crying for my mama if I so much as attempted it!"
Auckland actor Renee Lyons (Joseph & Mahina) was all set to do a one woman solo show. She’d got funding (big tick!), had been working on the story for the past six months, and was participating in an Incubator workshop led by the creative team at Red Leap Theatre to further hone her idea. Except, when it was her turn to speak about her project, another story entirely came out of her mouth....
It was the real life story of Dunedin’s Nick Chisholm, a sportsman and adrenalin junkie who suffered a major stroke during a Rugby match in 2000 which left in a condition called ‘locked in syndrome’ – unable to move or speak, it was believed he was brain dead. His is a remarkable story of adversity to communicate with the world.
Renee had been sitting on the idea of turning his story in a play for two years, and at the Incubator it just seemed like the time was right. Arts Alive were supportive of the new idea, and NICK now forms part of The Triumphants double bill with another one-woman play ...And then you die performed by Aidee Walker and written by Thomas Sainbury. Both are directed by Hackman winner Abigail Greenwood.
As a fellow participant at the Incubator week, I was eager to hear more from Renee about her one-woman show and how it was developing for its debut season.
How did you come across real life story of Nick?
I stumbled across it during a random tinker on the internet! The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading. Then I found some stories done by 'Close Up' and 20/20 and when I watched those I realised Nick’s brother Matt was a friend from my Uni days that I hadn’t seen in quite some time! So I got in touch with him to see if he felt his brother would be open to me making a show about him and it developed from there.
What inspired you to turn into a theatre production? Why tell this story as a one-woman solo play?
Because I am but one woman looking for work! Locked in syndrome is probably the most isolated state a person can endure without being physically locked away. I felt this was the perfect story to explore as a solo. It’s about a man, but there are many women in Nick’s life whose place in his story resonated strongly with me. More than that, it's less gender specific and more a story of the capacity of the human spirit. There is something fascinating to me in the way that a person can endure such extreme hardship and have no other option than to get through it. Then when they take it that bit further, as Nick has, and don't just endure life but fight for it and love it... that is a quality of human spirit that I felt I wanted to explore and celebrate. It’s the ultimate triumph over adversity. Also from another angle, Nick communicates using a Perspex board with letters on it to spell out what he wants to say. One of the first images I had was the theatricality of this device.
You workshopped some ideas for Nick in the Red Leap incubator. What was that week like for you and how did it help shape your ideas?
That week was fabulous! It was so great to have other people feeding into my idea. In the early stages of devising its so important to go really wide in the exploration of the piece then start bringing it in and creating something that resembles a show. Having other people there to bust out of my limitations on what I thought I could do was great fun and opened things up for me. Very little of what I explored has been brought to the show because I don't have 5 other people to hold torches or operate puppets but it was an awesome way to plant the seed of inspiration!
It seems like an exciting theatrical challenge to communicate through a character that is restricted by ‘locked-in syndrome’?
Yes it is. There are so many ways to approach something like this. For me it was about giving the audience an insight into what Nick experienced and how he may have felt. So it’s been a lot about creating the world around him - the people, the places, the experience. And peppering it with his internal world which, theatrically, is a more visceral, sensual and immediate experience.
Have you met Nick? Tell us about that experience?
Yes. It was wonderful. I was so excited I felt like jumping up and down and hugging him. I knew so much about him from my research and of course to him I was just another person that was fascinated by his life - so nothing to jump up and down and hug about! It was confronting for me at times. All the verbal and non verbal cues I use in everyday communication were taken away and it was a person and a Perspex board and I had to fight against myself to not be intimidated by that. Nick is superhuman! He can’t walk or talk but he pushes weights at the gym that would have me in a crumpled heap crying for my mama if I so much as attempted it! It has taken him 12 years of hard work to get to where he is but the ease and grace with which himself, his friends and his family operate is phenomenal. And they were so very generous with their time and their stories with me. I was truly humbled and I plan to take the show to Dunedin so that Nick can see it.
What has your process been like with Director Abigail Greenwood?
Abigail Greenwood is a dream boat. It has been an absolute joy to work with her. She has been the perfect combination of supporting me in finding a structure and strength in the story and also giving me the freedom to explore whatever I need to find it. My requests seemed to get more elaborate as the process went on and she calmly asked me how I saw it happening, entertained the idea, look at the logistics, usually said yes and occasionally said no (needless to say the axe came down on the harness that would fly me through the air - apparently that is the $100, 000 show). Abigail is very a very talented director and has worked harder than any of us to get these 2 shows up and running. RESPECT!
What will audiences get out of seeing The Triumphants?
They will get laughter, tears, inspiration and their heart will be beautifully warmed. It’s going to be a great night. And Aidee Walker is hilarious in her part of our show - she is a true joy to watch!
Nick plays as part of the The Triumphants at Loft at Q 9-18th August. More details see Q.