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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

By Jonathan Fox
May 22, 2013

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.