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December 03, 2016
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‘struck’ at the NACL; This time, it’s personal

Tannis Kowalchuk with Brett Keyser appear in the finale of “struck.”
Photo by Stephen Arnold

The 2013 season at the North American Cultural Laboratory (NACL) theatre in Highland Lake, NY will open this weekend with a very personal story. The company’s cofounder and artistic director, Tannis Kowalchuk, describes the new play, “struck,” as a multi-media journey into the mind, soul and altered dimensions of a woman’s brain. It shares Kowalchuk’s own experience of suffering a stroke.

Kowalchuk has created and performed in over 16 NACL productions and has toured to Canada, England, Italy and Balkan Europe, but the story of “struck” began right here in her own backyard.

“I had been suffering from a rather debilitating headache for days while working on the farm (www.willowwisporganic.com),” Kowalchuk told me, “going about my daily routine-gathering flowers and creating bouquets for upcoming events. I dropped the stems a few times and thought that was odd,” she said, “and noticed a certain numbness in my left hand.” After dropping the shears a few times, and then experiencing difficulty riding her bike, she realized something was terribly wrong. A trip to the hospital and a slew of tests confirmed her fears. She was told that she had suffered a stroke. “A portion of your brain is dead, and you’re never getting it back,” the doctor told her.

After her hospital stay, rehab ensued and Kowalchuk began the slow process of retraining her brain. “My speech was OK,” she reported, “and the noticeable droop in my facial muscles vanished quickly, but there were other long-term effects, some of which remain to this day.”

Home from the hospital, she began doing research, reading books on the subject and consulting with an old friend, neuroscientist Allison Waters, who suggested some brain exercises Kowalchuk could do. Waters also created a video that her friend could refer to repeatedly.

At some point, Kowalchuk realized that she wanted to explore the issue in the only way she knows—through artistic expression. “I didn’t write ‘struck,’” she said. “Like everything we create at NACL, it’s a collaborative process.” Along with Waters, whose videos eventually became integral to the performance, Kowalchuk worked with writer/actor Brett Keyser, writer Kristen Kosmas, digital artist Brian Caiazza, filmmaker Tina Spangler, costumer Karen Flood, electronic artist Jim Ruxton, lighting designer Stephen Arnold, technical director Zoot and A/V technicians Rae Cornelison and Joe Murray.

“We have all combined our efforts to recreate the experience in a visceral, empathetic way that will resonate with the audience,” Kowalchuk said.

“Even though the play is based on a real-life event, it has become much larger than that,” she explained. “It is by far our biggest and most expensive production to date, and employs a profound multimedia experience. This show would be impossible without the expertise of the technicians and the creative input of everyone involved. “

The play takes place “in those moments between life and death and explores how our brains can save us from actually dying.” Keyser’s character “represents a part of my brain,” she explained, “and serves to answer the questions that are at the heart of the experience: what happened to my brain, what is my new brain like, and who am I now?”

Kowalchuk describes Keyser’s character as an “otherworldly representation of energy” manifested during the show and suggests that without the loving energy of those around her—“metaphysical, psychic, prayer-based and physical”—her recovery would not have been possible. “I could feel that it was a spiritual awakening,” she said.

Kowalchuk points out that last year alone, 800,000 Americans suffered strokes, many of which were fatal, and that everyone can relate to “struck” in one form or another. “We all have, or love someone, who has issues” she said.

“This experience has made me more aware of others. I chose to express myself in this way because it’s who I am. If I were a painter, or a pianist, or a carpenter, the artistic expression would have taken that form. I’m not sorry that it happened,” Kowalchuk said in conclusion. “I’ve learned so much about myself and those around me and it’s heightened my awareness of how truly special a gift each and every day is.”

Ultimately, “struck” is a unique, intimate look inside a personal experience that might ask more universal questions than it answers. Kowalchuk and company are excited to share this story with their audience and invite dialogue from those who attend. The “struck” premiere opens at the NACL on May 24 and runs through June 2.

The NACL is “artist-run” and defines itself as a “laboratory theatre.” Its mission is “to cultivate the rigorous exploration of actor-generated theatre as an ever-evolving art form.” For reservations and information, visit www.nacl.org, or call 845/557-0694.