What is the shape, colour and sound of pain?


Exploring the experience of chronic pain through a balance of theatrical elements and integrated access, The Shape of the Pain is playing at Battersea Arts Centre from 20 February – 10 March. Director Rachel Bagshaw talks to DAO about the conception of the show.

A woman's face with a cube overlaid on itConceived and directed by Rachel Bagshaw and written by Chris Thorpe The Shape of the Pain produced by China Plate was given four stars by The Guardian’s Lyn Gardner who dubbed it “a kaleidoscopic exercise in empathy” during its run at Summerhall, Edinburgh last summer.

The Shape of the Pain is a fictional monologue about Bagshaw’s very real chronic pain. Produced with sound design that presents integrated access with text that explores what amounts to an elegy to pain, Bagshaw explains how the piece came together:

“Chris Thorpe and I have quite different backgrounds in the style of work we make so this show brought our voices together in a really interesting way. We worked closely on developing the script and it worked well – Chris writing about my experience from a removed point-of-view rather than being right inside of it. He’s a really experienced theatre maker, and helped us develop the ideas fully and to make the show much more universal.”

Our science collaborators were also a huge part of developing the show to broaden the context within which the work sits. From answering very basic questions about the chronic pain patient experience, through to exploring the ways our brains works – they fed into the process every step of the way.”

We were lucky enough to be joined by experts in their field, such as rheumatologist Dr Helen Cohen and neuroscientist Professor Giandomenico Iannetti – also all incredible thinkers in their own right who brought their own invaluable experiences into the room.”

The show has developed into a conversation between someone in pain and another who is trying to understand it. For a lot of my life, the pain has been constantly with me and it informs everything about the way that I engage with the world. So, it’s about perception and how we see the world. I hope audiences will come away feeling not only as though they have experienced a glimpse into living with chronic pain, but also reflect on their own sense of the world and how subjective that experience is.

For some people, like me, talking about pain can make it worse, and so we’re aware that the show can feel uncomfortable for some people. We definitely don’t want to cause pain – the sound by Melanie Wilson and the video design by Joshua Pharo has created a world in which others can feel it without needing to live it!

An actress stands on stage wearing black. Behind her is a screen projection.

The Shape of the Pain. Image © The Other Richard

When I started working on the show, I was aware that what I wanted to explore might feel at odds with some work being made by disabled artists. We wanted the audience to engage with the idea of living in constant pain, and there was a danger that could feel medicalised or worthy.

However, the show is about so much more than just my experiences. I think by working with a team of people who didn’t have the same experience as me I was able to create a piece which looked at living with a chronic condition from the outside too.

There has been some brilliant work in the last few years based on the experience of impairments, such as Laura Dannequin’s dance theatre or the Unlimited supported work A Crash Course In Cloudspotting which Raquel Meseguer is currently developing. I think we’re at an interesting point in time where it’s possible to talk about these experiences in a personal way that chimes with the rest of the world – and doesn’t contradict the social model of disability. We all experience a form of pain in our lives, physical or emotional, and using personal stories to explore this is a brilliant way of connecting with others.

The team have also gone to great lengths to integrate access for disabled and D/deaf audiences. Although much of my work has previously used creative access, like The Rhinestone Rollers shows I made with Graeae, this show was the first time I’d worked with video captioning. It was one of the most exciting parts of the process for me, and designer Joshua and I spent many many hours exploring how best to integrate the captioning fully into the design of the piece.

We’re delighted that we’re bringing the show back to Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), particularly with Jess Thom being in the building as a ‘Changemaker’. It’s a pretty intense show but we want all performances to be relaxed in keeping with the work which Thom is doing and are planning to create more flexible seating and a relaxed feel for the audience space. We’re delighted that the longer run at BAC will mean that we’ll reach more disabled and D/deaf audiences too.”

The Shape of The Pain is playing at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20 Feb-10 March | 8pm (4pm matinee 10 Mar). Visit the BAC website for more information.

Rachel Bagshaw is currently a Bush Associate Artist for 2018. Follow her on twitter to find out about future projects.