A most curious detour

on 04 October 2012. Posted in Theatre

Alistair Rutherford (pictured) on adapting a biography for the stage, with support from the Stroke Association

In 2005 Edinburgh-born Stuart Hepburn suffered an extensive brain stem stroke which left him with virtually no movement and no speech. Ever since he has lived with ‘locked-in syndrome’. Over time, he regained limited control over his right hand and arm and in 2008 he began writing his biography, A Most Curious Detour. It was published in 2010 and it was around that time I was asked by a mutual friend, Ian Gilmour, to read Curious Detour to see if it had potential for a stage play. Ian thought that Stuart’s story was important and through drama could reach another, more diverse audience. The potential was certainly there, so Ian then contacted the Stroke Association UK (SAUK) to see if it would be interested in such a project.

SAUK’s Director in Scotland, Maddy Halliday, already knew Stuart and agreed to look at our proposal to adapt and stage his story. The SAUK officially backed the proposal in January 2011.

Funding was always going to be key to doing full justice to Stuart’s story and SAUK set out to raise the budget to commission the adaptation and to mount a professional stage production. I took on the role of producer and asked a director and actor I’d worked with before to join the project’s creative team.

Stuart’s book begins just before the onset of his strokes and chronicles the time he spent thereafter in different hospitals and rehabilitation centres before eventually moving into a new flat. Given the nature of his strokes, he freely admits his recollections in the book are not wholly accurate, particularly as he suffered vivid and sometimes terrifying hallucinations that he didn’t recognise as such at the time. I knew it would be a challenging adaptation, especially as Curious Detour contains a lot of detailed information covering the many months he spent in hospital, and I had to ensure the drama of his story wasn’t lost in those details.

From March 2011 onwards we held regular meetings, usually in Stuart’s house, to discuss progress and also to let Stuart and the rest of the team meet the ever-increasing number of people I brought on to the project.

We developed an awareness-raising strategy that could help in our fundraising efforts and decided to do a short script ‘taster’ as a performed reading in November 2011 in Edinburgh. We secured an excellent venue, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and I began planning a 30-minute monologue for November.

Out of the blue we were invited to present this ‘taster’ at the Festival of Spirituality and Peace in Edinburgh in August 2011. It was too good a chance to turn down so I quickly wrote the script and our director and actor started their work. That event in August sold out and got very favourable responses from the audience. We ran a Q&A session afterwards and it was clear from the health professionals in the audience that Stuart’s story was throwing a spotlight on sensitive and little-explored areas. SAUK’s main aim of raising awareness of stroke issues, even in this early version of the play, was definitely being achieved.

Fundraising efforts began to bear fruit in September 2011 when we received a grant from Awards For All. We then repeated our 30-minute performance and Q&A sessions in November 2011 to even more enthusiastic and informed audiences.

It was becoming clear in late 2011 that we would not make our target funding level for the main show so we trimmed our budget and everyone’s fees were reduced. We scaled back our run of nine or 10 performances to two. I started work on the full-length script in early 2012 for a June production.

A key part of Stuart’s story is that the strokes have not affected him intellectually and mentally but he is ‘locked-in’. When he lay in hospital beds he was fully aware of everything happening around him but couldn’t interact with it. It’s essential that the audience knows his feelings and thoughts at those times. I therefore decided to have three ‘Stuarts’ in the play, all played by one actor. One was him before the strokes, the second after, and the third was the internal, fully aware Stuart.

Stuart communicates using a ‘Lightwriter’, a keyboard-based text-to-speech device so we used PowerPoint to project his dialogue on to a screen for the audience. Slightly risky if the cast made a mistake and got out of sync with Stuart’s pre-programmed replies but, happily, this didn’t happen.

Stuart spends most of the play in a hospital bed as he gradually goes through all the difficult stages of his slow and laborious recovery. At the times when I wanted the internal Stuart to ‘speak’, he simply changed from being incapable of speech or movement to actively vocalising his inner thoughts as per normal.

As Stuart’s book is written solely from his perspective there’s only limited information about other people but there was more than enough to build a drama that would keep an audience engaged for close to two hours. Key to that was his wife, Pam, and the role she played in his recovery. Stuart doesn’t hold back in his comments on his bad experiences deep within the NHS hospital system and Pam became a crucial advocate for him when he couldn’t speak for himself.

The first ‘gala’ performance of the full-length A Most Curious Detour was in June 2012, again at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. We sold out quickly, the box office had to disappoint many and we knew the play’s subject matter was connecting with a lot of people. The show was a great success. You always know when an audience is truly captivated by moments of almost total silence and there were many. I balanced the intensity of Stuart’s story with some humour to ease the tension. Everyone involved in the production did a fantastic job. Stuart and Pam were in the front row and I let out a great sigh of relief when they told me afterwards that they were very happy.

What happens next? We have funds to perform the play once more in Glasgow later this year. Playwrights normally retain copyright in their scripts, but I will soon transfer script ownership to SAUK. It will be SAUK’s asset to explore and use as it wishes. It wants this play to be seen by as many people as possible. All royalties will also be theirs and I hope it will be a source of income towards their valuable work.

I know, too, from my own BBC radio drama and screenwriting experience that Stuart’s story would work well in those media.

Maddy Halliday also indicated another route for a shortened, tailored version of the drama to be used within teaching hospitals and medical colleges. In other words, let the next generation of nurses, physios and doctors experience this powerful depiction of a genuine stroke survivor’s story.

When Stuart began picking out letters one by one on a computer screen and slowly but surely wrote his story he had no idea where it would end up. It’s an important story, it’s heart-warming, challenging and life-affirming and adapting Stuart’s book for the stage has been a fascinating and rewarding experience.

A Most Curious Detour, by Stuart Hepburn, is available on Amazon. As Ian Gilmour says, we can be ‘…thankful that we do not need to pick up every piece of human experience first hand to glean some crucial learning from it…’

Photo of Alistair Rutherford by Jon Davey Photography

The Stroke Association

By Maddy Halliday, Stroke Association UK Director in Scotland

The Stroke Association is committed to working with others to create a world where there are fewer strokes and all those touched by stroke get the help they need. To achieve this vision we need to significantly increase public and political awareness and engagement in the stroke cause as currently this is too low. The most recent stroke awareness figures show that only 62% of people in Scotland know what a stroke is, contrasting with much higher public awareness of heart disease and cancer.

The Stroke Association supports a range of awareness activities including media coverage and campaigning, but until our involvement in A Most Curious Detour we had not used drama as a way of promoting stroke awareness. The Stroke Association is an enthusiastic supporter of the “Curious Detour” project because we believe that the combination of personal testimony and drama is a powerful way of engaging others in the stroke cause.

The gala performance of A Most Curious Detour in Edinburgh in June 2012 was a success and we look forward to our second performance in Glasgow in autumn 2012. Thereafter we plan to encourage performance of the play through community and student dramatic societies - across Scotland and hopefully UK wide. We also hope to raise funds to use excerpts from the play, combined with discussion, to support improved understanding of a person's experience of stroke amongst health and social care professionals.”