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Jesse Stanley chats with Analogue Theatre's co-founder Hannah Barker about their latest show 'Sleepless'

Hannah Barker and Liam Jarvis are co-directors (and founding members) of Analogue Theatre, soon to premier their latest show Sleepless at Shoreditch Town Hall. Analogue aims to create work inspired by real stories and ethical questions. Their productions often find roots in scientific ponderings, inspiring collabrations with pioneering figures in the scientific research community. I had the opportunity to ask Hannah a few questions about Sleepless and how the company and the show were conceived...

Jesse Stanley: Where did you and Liam meet? Was it an immediate artistic romance? 

Hannah Barker: Liam and I met at university, both studying theatre at Royal Holloway. He and another friend were taking a show to Edinburgh and I – and others later involved in Analogue shows – came to perform in it. It was a dark, comic look at loneliness (that’s how we described it anyway) and involved a scene using projection where a husband and wife were forced to saw their son in half during divorce proceedings. Analogue began a few years later after we graduated, following a period of drama schools and work with other theatre companies. A still image on the front page of the Metro showing someone being pushed in front of an oncoming tube train inspired the visual, physical piece Mile End. It was a combination of everything we wanted to explore in theatre at that particular time – physical theatre, onstage illusion, visual storytelling, questions of ethics and responsibility - and off we went to the Edinburgh Festival. The rest is history.

Jesse: Sleepless is inspired by the story of a family that suffered from a rare genetic disorder, ultimately depriving them of the ability to sleep. That sounds horrendous. Can you tell us more about what happened to these people?

Hannah: The disease strikes after child-bearing age. It can start with profuse sweating, pinprick pupils and a few late nights, but soon descends into a complete inability to sleep. Victims of Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) are trapped in a no-man’s-land between sleep and wake. Painfully, slowly, and aware of everything that’s happening to them, they lose the ability to walk, talk and move until, between 9-18 months later, they finally fall into a coma and die. 

The first known patient was a doctor in 1795 but for many years, the premature death in this family was misdiagnosed as anything from meningitis to madness. Over time, members of that family spread across the globe and other families have been found to carry the terrifying gene. A test was discovered in the 90's offering people the horrific choice to know or not, but with 50% chance of inheriting it if one parent is affected, you can imagine what a huge decision that would be. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, because it impacts so few people, the families affected have to fight really hard to find the funding for a cure.

Jesse: What was it about this story that you found irresistible to use as the basis of a new show?

Hannah: We were in the first instance drawn to the story because it felt so extreme and bizarre, almost out of this world: could something like this really exist? But the reason to make a show inspired by it came from something much deeper. Beyond anything else, it was the human aspects of the story that hit us hardest. This family are handed the worst burden imaginable on the day they are born. You live with the fear of getting a disease with no cure and cruel symptoms that cause you to lose your sense of what is real and what is fiction, but equally witnessing the break down of your own body. Things we all take for granted, choices we blithely make concerning family, jobs, relationships, ambitions are suddenly threatened. People with FFI do not get a choice. And not only that, but because it doesn’t affect ‘enough’ people – whatever ‘enough’ may equate to – there is less of an incentive to find a cure. Because Mad Cow and Variant CJD are part of the same family of diseases (Prion Diseases) there was a small ray of hope when Mad Cow erupted because suddenly the government were pumping money into finding a cure, but as soon as numbers plateaued, funding ceased, and all these families are now still waiting for a cure. So perhaps it’s the brutal element of luck, or lack thereof, which compelled us to tell this story: What happens if you inherit the wrong disease? What is the value of a human life if you happen to inherit a disease that doesn’t affect a big enough proportion of the population? Who is in the position to judge what a big enough proportion of the population is?

Jesse: Analogue aims to bring together research and invention 'to create performance that fuses the human with the scientific' (Analoguetheatre.co.uk). Can you describe what this looks like on a practical level when you are starting out with a concept for show development? 

Hannah: Much of our work is inspired by true stories, and many of those stories have some relationship to science. For us, theatre has the capability to find the human story in what could otherwise be a page of data. It’s not about dumbing down the science, but looking at how we might be able to make it accessible to non-scientists, and consequently how we can explore it in a theatrical context. For Sleepless we want to get an audience as close as possible to what might otherwise be considered a complicated or inaccessible science: the crossroads between Sleep Science and Prion Theory. We do not simply want to create a lecture on stage. So we put them in the shoes of a protagonist – a woman called Cosima who finds out her mother has died suddenly in strange circumstances - and we send them on a journey of discovery, a detective story putting each piece of the puzzle together. And as the audience travel on this journey, it becomes clear that perhaps this is not the journey we first thought, and the whole story may be playing out in the brain of someone in the latter stages of the disease.

Jesse: What is it about the merging of humanity and science that Analogue finds to be most compelling?

Hannah: I don’t think we see them as so very different, they just use different languages and it is in the tension between those languages where theatre can play its best role. I think people are curious. They want to know why do we do what we do? What causes us to act in particular ways or why do diseases have the impacts they have? Scientists have the answers, what we want to do is try to marry those with something that might feel recognisable, relatable. There’s sometimes no better way of learning something than through story. If that story can be told using a combination of physical, visual and textual methods – that might in some way sit within a wider scientific metaphor – then maybe the science won’t feel so foreign and inaccessible. 

Jesse: Were there any unexpected revelations made during Sleepless's development?

Hannah: When you read the story, you are shocked, appalled and terrified. This disease belongs in a horror movie, and the fact it is real is in itself a revelation. However that only travels so far. The real revelations come in something much simpler. It’s the sense of loss, the raw unfairness and the overwhelming feeling of responsibility these people have to struggle with that hits you where it hurts.
 

 

Sleepless will be playing at Shoreditch Town Hall from September 1st - September 14th. Book now!

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