“It’s a very specific experience that allows us to view the rest of the world through that lens for a brief period of time.” Rachel Bagshaw is making a show about pain. Not the wailing-on-the-moors heartbreak kind, but unrelenting physical pain.
Created alongside playwright Chris Thorpe, The Shape of Pain uses Bagshaw’s personal experience of Complex Regional Pain Syndrome to explore the extent to which we can understand another person’s pain.
Disclosure: I go to talk to Bagshaw because I suffered from chronic pain for over seven years and am still prone to frequent episodic pain, resulting from seemingly minor activities. Given that the other great narrative to my life is theatre, works for the stage about chronic pain possess an obvious draw for me. I think. To be honest, I’m never sure if I want to see a show that makes me reflect on chronic pain, especially when theatre, art and music have provided such an effective means of escape from the lived experience of pain. On the morning before I interview Bagshaw, I get very upset trying to decide what I want to ask someone else who lives with chronic pain; I want to ask her everything and also nothing, like I’d rather just drink hot chocolate and pretend this wasn’t happening. After meeting her (and she’s instantly likeable and highly informative) I stall on the interview transcript for several weeks. Each time I sit down to attack it I’m drowning in a ball of heat.
The point – albeit self-indulgently – that I’m trying to make is that talking, writing or creating art about pain when you experience it is hard. Really hard. Bagshaw describes the process of making The Shape of Pain, with obvious understatement, as “not an easy one”.
“One of the things – this is true of lots of chronic pain conditions and certainly its true of neuropathic pain conditions like I have – is that talking about the pain actually makes the pain worse. It actually fires the signals in the brain,” she explains. To account for this, they took things at a slower pace than most theatremakers would work at. “We’ve had to allow a huge amount of time and space around it, and also space for me to physical rest as well as kind of emotionally rest.”
Despite the process being challenging, it hasn’t been negative. An original plan to make a show about pain, but not directly about Bagshaw’s experience was side-lined when it became apparent that her own story would unavoidably be at the heart of anything they created relating to the issue. At points, this was “really terrifying!” Yet also “really liberating,” and “creatively freeing to use that experience as the lens.”
Bearing in mind the inherent difficulty of making art about chronic pain for those living with it, there’s an incredible generosity to attempting it. Personally, I’m nowhere near ready to properly try writing about my own pain yet (a fact I recognise quite acutely whilst talking to Bagshaw), but I feel an almost embarrassing amount of gratitude to people like Laura Dannequin who do. In The Shape of Pain this generosity manifests itself as part of the show’s core point: communication. Bagshaw says she “always knew that there was no point in making a show that was just completely inside of the pain, because it’s got to be about how other people access that. Like with anything, it’s got to be about how an audience relates to it.”
Given that the experience of pain is so entirely subjective and personal, it might seem puzzling that Bagshaw is not the author of The Shape of Pain, but instead chose to work collaboratively with Chris Thorpe, using a devising process that has seen the work continually evolve. However, creating it this way provided her with the audience that the piece needs in order to really be about communication. “Working with Chris as the writer,” she tells me, allowed her to continually ask the question: “Can he understand what it is like to live with this condition?” And, in doing so, it means “the performer [Hannah McPake] can have that conversation with the audience.” The audience, then, are as crucial a part of the production as the performer. In fact, communication is so integral to the show that each performance is fully accessible with live captioning and some audio-description.
There are, though, features of the show that throw the emphasis back onto Bagshaw and what she goes through. Two aspects of her condition are disassociation and a version of synaesthesia. She describes the first thus: “I have an out-of-body experience when I am in a lot of pain. So a few years ago I was describing to someone how I sort of come out of my body and I’m watching someone being in pain, and it isn’t me, but I sort of know it is me, but I’m also outside of myself. And so I’m sort of the most inside and outside of my body in the same moment.” The second is a “side effect… So I see pain as colours and I hear it as sound.”
This synesthetic property is embedded in the way The Shape of Pain uses music and sound design by Melanie Wilson to articulate what Bagshaw feels. Which isn’t to say that what you, as the audience, hear in the show is literally what she hears in her head through being in pain, but that it goes some way to aiding other people in knowing a bit more about what she is going through. The team worked with a neuroscientist, Bagshaw explains, and he talked “a lot about accuracy and usefulness. And that’s something we kept coming back to in how we made the show, like: is the sound an accurate representation of how I hear pain? No. But it is a useful way of us exploring that chronology and trying to create a shared understanding…” She pauses, laughs and rests on: “Perhaps! We’ll see!”
A performance about unrelenting, pointless physical pain might be a hard sell. It’s not the easiest thing to ask people to come see at the end of the day, seemingly being the antithesis to a ‘feel good’ bit of entertainment. Being in pain is horribly lonely and for a long time I was very angry at other people for not wanting to discuss it with me. But, as Bagshaw says, “people find it really difficult to watch someone else in pain. We don’t… it’s not an easy thing to see.”
Perhaps though, theatre on the subject is not as niche as even I thought it was. One of things talking to Bagshaw makes me reflect on is that whilst there is a fairly limited amount of theatre created about chronic physical pain, there sure as hell is a lot about emotional pain. Heartbreak, loneliness, depression, alienation… art of all kinds is pretty much vampiric for this stuff. Maybe when I hid in the dark all those evenings it wasn’t entirely escapism but actually as good as place as any to search for help understanding and accepting this. As Bagshaw points out, “Theatre is exploring what it means to live and the human experience. We all feel pain.”
The Shape of Pain is on at Summerhall in Edinburgh from 2 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe. Click here for more details.