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Brief Encounter With ... Melanie Wilson

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Melanie Wilson is a London-based performer, writer and sound artist making performances, installations and sound walks centring on the use of sound as a distinct, immersive agency. Her work is powerfully evocative of place and state of mind. Wilson's collaborations include work with The Clod Ensemble, Shunt and Chris Goode.

She was recently selected for the British Council Edinburgh 2011 Showcase with Every Minute, and other work includes Always (with Abigail Conway), one-on-one performance The View From Here, Iris Brunette and Simple Girl. Her new piece Autobiographer tackles dementia and is currently running at The Toynbee Studios.

What is Autobiographer about?

The performance is a poetic portrait of the life of a woman called Flora. It uses surround sound, a lyrical text and an intimate relationship with the audience to weave together several key events in the life of the character that she comes to revolve around in increasingly smaller circles.

What drew you to this subject matter?

Much of the work I make is interested in subjectivity and inner trains of thoughts and consciousness. I am also really fascinated by perception. Dementia insists on a very particular devolution of perception of the self and the world around and as such was a really interesting starting point for me.

Dementia is a daunting and diaphanous subject, were you intimidated by it and by the need to get your facts and figures rights?

No I wasn't intimidated by it, but I did underpin the making process with a very rigorous and lengthy research period, to ensure I understood as much as I could about it. Dementia is often spoken about in public arenas in very heightened and often hysterical terms. It was keen to create a performance that illuminated the experience of dementia without fictionalizing it.

Where did you begin in your research?

At the British Library and with the Alzheimer's Society. Once I had secured a grant from the Wellcome Trust though, I was then able to embark upon a period of research under the guidance of Professor Sube Bannerjee and the Croydon Memory Service in South London.

What was your process as you crafted this performance?

After my research was underway, I began to write and compose a script and sound score, which lead to the presentation of an early scratch of the show in September 2010. I went away and worked again on both the sound and the script in early 2011, whilst still making visits to the Croydon Memory Service and in the autumn of 2011 the final show was finished and premiered at the Dublin Fringe Festival. The show then went on to tour a handful of venues in the U.K, and this phase was when we really cemented the piece into the shape that we are so pleased to be able to present here in London now.

What have you learnt whilst making Autobiographer?

So much! From the people I met with the disease and those who care for them I learned about patience, compassion, stamina and loneliness and I saw those qualities too in abundance in the doctors and social workers that worked at the Croydon Memory Service. I saw new sides and nuances and awkward shapes of those qualities, and felt extremely privileged and humbled to be able to do so. I may say that something of those qualities I learned too during collaboration with the team that made Autobiographer. A game changing experience for me.

What would you like the audience to come away with?

Dementia is a set of processes that underpin the way in which Autobiographer is shaped, but at its heart it is a beautiful and affectionate performance about memory and stories and a life well lived. Autobiographer also equally seeks to challenge and engage with the vivid possibilities of contemporary theatre. As such, I hope the audience will feel that they have for a very brief moment, brushed up against a state of being lived out by many thousands of people in this country at this moment, but told in a highly engaging, singular and thought provoking way.

Do you feel that science is a bedfellow of art or that the questions they ask are oppositional?

I think that in dealing with a profound human experience such as dementia, there are only really questions, and be we scientist or artist, we are all with our different questions only adding to the sum of knowledge and care about the subject. It has never been my experience that bio medical science and art are oppositional, their root is the same one, that of interest in the human experience. We merely have different valves for accessing that experience. Neither needs the other to survive, but each is revealed and illuminated brilliantly when either happens to turn their lens upon the other.

- Honour Bayes


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