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Kelle Bryan: ' It's amazing that Wings is my first job since I suffered a stroke'

The Eternal singer and actress Kelle Bryan is part of the cast of Wings, all of whom have experience of stroke

Juliet Stevenson (L) and Kelle Bryan in Wings
© Johan Persson

You may know Kelle Bryan from her earliest work as part of the '90s girl-band Eternal. But you may not realise that she's currently starring in the Young Vic's production of Wings, opposite Juliet Stevenson. Having suffered a stroke last year due to complications from the auto immune condition lupus, she responded to a casting call from the Young Vic which specified performers with direct experience of strokes. Here Bryan explains what drove her to take the part, what the experience in rehearsals was like and how having a cast of people who know about strokes has affected the show.

Can you explain a bit about what Wings is about?
The writer Arthur Kopit's father had a stroke. And he was very much hands on with the whole process of rehabilitation, so he wrote the play from the perspective of the stroke sufferer. The lead role Emily, played by Juliet Stevenson, is a wing walker from the 1940s, and she has had a stroke.

You had a stroke last year, have you worked much since?
This is my first job since the stroke. Which is amazing. It was so meant to be. Its karma. It's so special for me because it was hard to get the confidence for a casting room, I was so nervous. I had a tick, and I just didn't want to be in-front of people. This sort of job is unheard of. My stroke happened last April. I went into hospital for a fairly minor operation, but because I have lupus, I caught a major infection and ended up in intensive care and then had a stroke.

As someone who has experienced what the main character is going through, does Wings ring true for you?
When I first read it, I wasn't actually sure what was going on. A lot of the audience find that too, it wasn't until I read a bit more around it that it all became clear. But you don't need to know much about it. It gives a pictorial explanation of the disassociation you have from reality. Emily floats, suspended above the rest of the active world. It is quite stark and it often touches a nerve in people.

How has the play been affected by having a cast of people who have experience of stroke?
I think director Natalie Abrahami and casting director Julia Horan have had real foresight. It's a brave and bold move. In the casting room there were people in all different stages of recovery. It made me appreciate how far I've come. When we felt comfortable enough we shared our experiences and we worked closely with units who deal with recovery. Lots of the actors went down and spent time in clinics and speech therapy sessions to get a real idea understanding of what the processes are like.

Was it hard for you in rehearsals?
It was, because recognition of words was something I really struggled with. I had to learn to read and write again. Words appeared jumbled up - I didn't recognise them as words. But the script is also occasionally written with sentences all jumbled up and I would auto correct them, because I was going through speech therapy training. But Natalie said: 'No don't do that'. I realised then that I was lost. Totally lost.

But you still persevered?
That was in the first audition, and I thought, I am clearly not ready yet. It was a masterclass for me, but in terms of my recovery, I wasn't as far on as I thought. So when I got a recall I thought they were joking. It was the worst audition of my life. It was a very challenging process for me.

Are we aware enough as a society of the issues surrounding aphasia and stroke?
I don't think so. A lot of the time people react to what we can see. But you can't see those things in the mind. It's why Wings is so powerful - it gives you that visual image of what the person's mind is like. I would find it difficult because I was that person in the supermarket queue who was in total confusion if someone spoke to me. I would hear it as mumbling or it would be as if they were shouting at me. It's not like I had a label on me that said: I can't hear you or what you're saying. People need to realise that there may be a reason that I'm not responding to you in the way you would like me to.

Wings runs at the Young Vic until 4 November.