Alexandra Montagnese unpacks the collaborative, genre-defying BRAIN STORM

Alexandra Montagnese (photo: LV Imagery)

Taliesin McEnaney’s  Brain Storm offers audiences an unexpected, experimental window into the world of a woman with a brain injury. Creator-director McEnaney has drawn on the work of Canadian neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield, the writings of her spiritual medium grandmother, and a brain injury in her own family in order to craft a provocative work of physical theatre that has been created collaboratively with cast members Hayley Carr, Maïza Dubhé, Alexandra Montagnese and Shayna Virginillo. Following a hit workshop production at the 2017 Toronto Fringe, Brain Storm will receive its world premiere at DanceMakers Studio Theatre this week, co-presented by Lucid Ludic and Why Not Theatre. 

Montagnese is a core company member of Lucid Ludic, and collaborated on the conception of Brain Storm “scene by scene” in a solo creation class at York University. She recalls McEnaney initially showing a scene that touched on the subject, then having peers read her work aloud. Montagnese was intrigued. A collection of scenes that McEnaney put together for a more “polished showing” then gave Montagnese a taste of the Lucid Ludic aesthetic: “Crisp, bold movements, emotionally rooted, sensitive, and fluid. It was regular people talking about the complexities of the brain, and an old timey neuroscientist walking around with a brain in his briefcase. So when I got the chance to join the team in 2017, I was ecstatic.” 

So what should audiences expect to experience? “You’ll witness two major stories in this show,” explains Montagnese. “One is the experience of an artist living with a brain injury acquired as a result of surgery. The other is the practice of a medium who channels spirits of the deceased.” One of the spirits whom she channels happens to be Penfield, who speaks about his work with the brain, his philosophies on the mind, and his personal experience with death. These themes were brought together from the real-life experiences of Brain Storm’s creators, using the real writings of McEnaney’s grandmother, script medium Claire Ward, and true stories from members of the team living with brain injuries in their families. 

The show takes several approaches to depict the sensory experience of the main character: “We play with sound, noise, music, lights, projections, and movement throughout to help achieve this massive task.” This task is extra challenging because the entire run of the show is relaxed, which means that people who live with brain injuries and who benefit from a softened sensory experience can always attend and not worry that the show will be overly stimulating. Five performances will also feature open captions. Beyond  the sensory experience, Brain Storm also tells the story of a person whose entire social and familial life has been changed due to their injury, of an artist negotiating going back to work, and of a granddaughter trying to connect with her grandmother. “It’s sensory, social, and spiritual.” Montagnese says that the show gives the cast the opportunity to “embody the spirit voices, and to show a live audience an altered perception of a moment happening right in front of them… like feeling that you’re talking to three people when there’s only one in front of you, seeing someone’s face change shape, hearing gibberish instead of words, partially compromised vision, balance issues, etc.” 

Photo of Alexandra Montagnese by Dahlia Katz

This experience links to a larger intent: “Seeing the world differently is possible with theatre, and it’s also what we are hoping to achieve when we produce plays. We are hoping to offer an audience a different perspective.” Thinking specifically of Brain Storm, she marvels at the “mystery and limitlessness to the intersections of art, the brain, and identity”. The play has given Montagnese the opportunity to learn about the challenges of Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and to stand inside some of the difficult conversations that can arise between friends and colleagues around ableism. And Lucid Ludic has partnered with the Brain Injury Society of Toronto (BIST) and Community Head Injury Resource Services (CHIRS) to raise awareness of the challenges that those living with brain injuries face. The CHIRS community group Hand of Hope Collective will also perform The Hand You’re Dealt, a play inspired and performed by people living with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI) before the February 29 performance of Brain Storm

The process of co-creating Brain Storm has meant that the four actors and the director “all work together on our feet: It’s like we are cooking together! New offers are raw and misshapen, coming from different people. Then we put them together, and ideas start to melt into each other, complimenting each unique aspect and producing new flavours impossible to attain without each separate part.” Rather than working from a fixed script, it has been liberating to turn to co-stars Dubhé, or Carr, or Virginillo, or McEnaney, and to ask what would fit best in this moment – and similarly, “to turn to Dr. Penfield, or Claire Ward, or the voices of our collaborator’s families and members of the brain injury community to help shape the play.” Brain Storm is created “not just with the voices in the room, but the voices of many people across the country, and across ethers. Brain Storm has seen many steps in process, and continues to, as audiences come in to witness our work.” 

It takes a village – a collaborative, courageous village – to mount such a bold, unpredictable and genre-defying work. And clearly, Montagnese relishes the ongoing and open-ended work of that village: “I think the feeling of experimentation is part of what brought us so much accolade in our 2017 run at the Toronto Fringe. It’s a test in a lot of ways, to see what works. We won’t know until the audience is in the room with us, until they taste it.”

Left to right: Maïza Dubhé, Shayna Virginillo, Hayley Carr and Alexandra Montagnese in rehearsal for BRAIN STORM (photo: Annie Clarke)

News You Can Use

What: Brain Storm (world premiere), a Lucid Ludic production in association with Why Not Theatre | Created & Directed by Taliesin McEnaney | Co-creators & Cast: Hayley Carr, Maïza Dubhé, Alexandra Montagnese & Shayna Virginillo | Stage Manager: Tara Mohan | Set & Costume Designer: Will Bezek | Assistant Set & Costume | Designer: Ellen Brooker | Projection & Lighting Designer: Melissa Joakim | Composer & Sound Designer: Olivia Shortt | Production Manager: Suzie Balogh | Associate Producer: Annie Clarke | Brain Injury Consultant & Dramaturg: Shireen Jeejeebhoy | Dramaturg: Jess Watkin

When: February 27 – March 8, 2020 

Where: Dancemakers Studio Theatre, 9 Trinity Street, #313, Toronto, ON (Wheelchair accessible venue)

Info and Tickets: whynot.theatre

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.