How Shannon Sickels' Brush With Death Informed 'Reassembled, Slightly Askew'

A nurse standing in front of a computer hooked up to headphones on hospital beds as part of Shannon Sickles' Reassembled, Slightly Askew show

Shannon Sickels’ latest piece of theatre ‘Reassembled, Slightly Askew’  is informed by her identity as a queer woman faced with a disability


As a queer artist, what’s personal for me is inherently political, and what’s political is personal.


I’ve been at events where I hear people say they want to be known as ‘an artist fi rst’, not a queer artist, a female artist, an artist of color, a disabled artist.

Tokenism aside, I disagree with them. I’m proud to be composed of all those identities. They inform my experience of the world and therefore, the work I create.

I have always written as a way to make sense of myself, the world around me and where I am in it. So when my world changed drastically after a life-threatening infection, creating something artistic as a way to understand it was bound to happen.


Nearly Died

In December 2008, I nearly died from a rare brain infection.

Though I had a craniotomy in time – the neurosurgeon said an hour later would have been too late – I was paralysed down my left side for weeks, underwent a total of three brain surgeries, had a section of my skull placed under my abdomen until the swelling in my brain lessened, and had five months of antibiotic treatment until I was offi cially discharged.

My world as I knew it had been disassembled, and I, with my partner Gráinne’s support, began the slow process of reassembling myself, slightly askew.


Full-Body Experience

Rather than write a play to be performed to a physically distant audience, I wanted to create a full-body experience by fully integrating movement and sound, especially because in the early days it was unclear if I would walk again, and the aural bombardment of the noisy world overwhelmed me to meltdowns.

With an interdisciplinary team of Belfast-based artists and my medical team, I created Reassembled, Slightly Askew, an audio-based, visceral trip that audiences experience individually via headphones, while lying on hospital beds.

The audio technology makes the sound three-dimensional; listeners feel they are inside my head, viscerally experiencing my descent into coma, brain surgeries, early days in the hospital, and re-integration into the world with a hidden disability.



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Love Story

Audience feedback has been that Reassembled… is also a love story. Listeners get an insight into the emotional journey of a couple faced with death, new carer responsibilities, and the challenging negotiation of brain trauma in a relationship.

I didn’t set out to make a piece about a queer couple faced with a dramatic brush with death; I told the story.

When you live in a multi-faceted way, the other aspects of yourself can’t be separated out.


Journeys of Discovery

In 2015, I worked with Theatreofpluck, Northern Ireland’s only queer theatre company, to produce Trouble, an immersive video archive created from years of interviews I’d done with over 46 individuals about realising your sexuality against the backdrop of confl ict in the north.

Though varied in detail, the essences of the interviewees’ stories were universal – we’re all on individual journeys discovering who we are, who we love, and why we matter in this world.

It felt poignant that after opening at OUTBURST Queer Arts Festival, Trouble ran in Belfast City Hall’s exhibition space, ten years on from when Gráinne and I, followed by Chris and Henry Flanagan-Kane, made history as being the first public UK civil partnerships.


NI Marriage Equality

Back then, Belfast was ahead of the Republic; ten years on, it lags behind as the only place in Ireland and the UK that prohibits same-sex marriage.

Ten years ago we stood in City Hall to exercise our human rights; today, we are challenging the NI government through a judicial review so same-sex marriage can come into NI.

Many people have asked us why we’re taking this case, particularly as we’re liable for our legal fees; we’re not supported by an organisation.

The only response I have when asked ‘Why bother?’ is: ‘It’s just what you do’.


Personal & Political

As a queer artist, as a minority, what’s personal for me is inherently political, and what’s political is personal.

Moments of shared humanity. A visceral, first-person glimpse into a hidden disability.

Immersion into hidden stories of LGBT struggles during the Troubles.

A mural of two women kissing on Belfast’s Hill Street.

A four-story drawing of two men hugging on Dublin’s George’s Street.

Simple connections to the essence of what makes us all human is what art, informed by our multi-faceted experiences, can provide.


Shannon Sickles’ ‘Reassembled, Slightly Askew’ will be performed at The Complex on Sept 13- 17 and 20-24 as part of the Tiger Dublin Fringe Festival.

© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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