Immersive In/Sights: Performing the Cancer Experience

Vinia Dakari*

PasPort – A True Adventure, an immersive site-specific performance by Mikros Notos Theatre Group. Concept, direction and texts by Chryssa Diamantopoulou. Visual art and installation design by Vassilis Kavouridis. Immersive design by Flora Spyrou. Cast: Nikos Axiotis, Evelina Arapidi, Chryssa Diamantopoulou, Elsa Loubardia, Semeli Papaeconomou and dancer Anna Anousaki. Performed in the Asylon Aniaton Hospice in Athens, Greece. Premiere in spring 2023, rerun autumn 2023. Nominated for the Hellenic Association of Theatre and Performing Arts Critics’ Awards for 2022–23.

Doctor in the surgery room. Photo: Tasos Vrettos

PasPort – A True Adventure delves into the experience of breast cancer. Staged in a wing of the historic Asylon Aniaton Hospice for Neuro-disability in Athens, the performance employs its palimpsestic setting to deepen the exploration of medical narratives and the intricate layers of illness and suffering. Blending elements of immersive theatre, this performance invites audiences to forge their own paths through a richly textured theatrical (and medical) landscape.

This work is, as its title indicates, “a true adventure”—a cancer experience transposed into performance. Artistic director Chryssa Diamantopoulou, who envisioned, designed and participates in it, shares: “My breast cancer diagnosis in October 2017 was an opportunity to redraw my personal map, to follow my internal compass. . . .  I had to lose myself to find myself and I am thankful for this journey.” Drawing from the strength she mustered from psychologist and breast cancer survivor Eleonora Sourlanga’s cancer memoir, PasPort – A True Adventure (Kedros, 2012), Diamantopoulou joins forces with visual artist Vassilis Kavouridis to dissolve the fourth wall, allowing a seamless, productive and transformative flow between performers and audience.

PasPort cast. Left to right: Ill Body (E. Loubardia), Healthy Body (A. Anousaki), Guardians (E. Arapidi, S. Papaeconomou), Body after Mastectomy (C. Diamantopoulou), Doctor (N. Axiotis). Photo: Tasos Vrettos

Our journey into PasPort starts with a walk to the performance space, where two Guardians—Evelina Arapidi and Semeli Papaeconomou—meet us around a hearth. Their words, “Even though we are together, each one of us is alone in this journey,” echo the solitary nature of grappling with illness. Guiding us up a spiraling ramp to the upper level, they mark our passage into the liminal space of the hospice, blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

Upon entering the wing, we find ourselves in a hallway lined with seats, creating an intimate setting for the audience, limited to a maximum of 35 participants. The presence of Elsa Loubardia, in the role of a patient with her suitcase, fills the space with a sense of anticipation. Her entry into a room cues us to rise from our seats and start exploring.

Waiting room. Photo: Tasos Vrettos

The performance unfolds in various rooms, each symbolizing different stages of cancer. Over the course of 65 minutes, the audience is given the opportunity to explore these spaces at their own pace: in the first room, dancer Anna Anousaki embodies the healthy body, gradually enveloping herself in clay near a paper tower that emits radiation-like blue light. This juxtaposition of health and therapy sets a contemplative tone. The next room, conversely, emits a different light: filled with candles and a papyrus scroll listing women’s names, it offers a moment of prayer and reflection, leaving the fate of these women open to interpretation.

The Healthy Body (A. Anousaki) covered in clay. Photo: Mikros Notos

In a room brimming with vintage nostalgia, Loubardia methodically sheds layers of clothing, symbolizing the stripping away of her former life. A niche with a vintage telephone across the hallway provides a moment of connection and reassurance to those of us who pick it up and listen to the recorded message, which emphasizes the importance of support in dealing with illness.

The journey continues through spaces of dissonance: an operating room where the violence of medical intervention is symbolized by red paint splashes, countered by the tranquility of orange scents and wind chimes set in motion by electric fans. The same sensory dichotomy is echoed in a child-themed room that smells of burnt sugar: the sweet redolence is juxtaposed by the image of scorched toys, and the joy of childhood memories recedes behind the harsh presence of illness.

Guardians in the playroom, one with a flamethrower. Photo: Tasos Vrettos

A doctor-clown, juggling knives atop a ladder in the opposite room, adds a layer of satirical commentary on medical procedures. Nikos Axiotis’ captivating performance, with its blend of circus play and medical solemnity, reflects Mikros Notos’ bold experimentation with the boundaries of entertainment and the serious subject at hand.

The doctor interacts with a ceiling-hung rug sculpture, symbolizing malignant growth. Photo: Mikros Notos

In the penultimate room, Diamantopoulou courageously reveals her mastectomy scars, engaging the audience in a profound exchange of gazes. This act of vulnerability and resilience, underscored by the haunting sound of an electric guitar, poignantly communicates the physical and emotional impacts of cancer. This moment of exposure becomes crucial in sparking an authentic conversation about the often-hidden realities of illness.

Finally, a tranquil room with a soundscape of birds and a tree installation adorned with audience-contributed messages offers a space for reflection and communal healing. This interactive element underscores the collective aspect of the cancer journey, offering some respite from the stark confrontations in the previous rooms.

Throughout the performance, the hallway serves as a transitional space, guiding the audience through the deep, often challenging emotions elicited by each room, and providing a shared space for reflection and connection with fellow spectators.

The performance deftly balances the aesthetic of impact with the aesthetic of distance. While it immerses the audience in affective personal narratives, it also maintains a necessary detachment.

As the performance nears its conclusion, we are called back to our seats. The performers emerge from their respective spaces, converging at the far end of the hallway. In this final act, Diamantopoulou voices her aspirations for a return to normalcy in a shared moment of reflection and hope. Our departure from the space mirrors our entry: in a state of collective solitude, together yet individually absorbed in the experience.

PasPort confronts the audience with the complexities of breast cancer, refusing to simplify or downplay the reality of this experience and shedding light on less discussed aspects, such as breast reconstruction dilemmas, sexuality and the pursuit of normalcy post-illness. Its conclusion, marked by Diamantopoulou’s hopeful words, opts for a compromise between the perturbing and the palatable, which slightly undercuts the raw, experimental edge of the piece. Indeed, it might have been more aesthetically impactful had it resisted softening its provocation, letting the unsettling experience linger longer with the audience. Yet, crucially, this choice to conclude on a reassuring note resonates with anyone seeking not just aesthetic engagement but also hope in the face of cancer.

Three female bodies (E. Loubardia, C. Diamantopoulou, A. Anousaki). Photo: Tasos Vrettos
Trailer

By incorporating aspects of the medical encounter into its narrative, this work aligns with the growing field of medical theatre, which has seen increased attention in recent years.[1] With its hybrid, interdisciplinary and testimonial nature, medical theatre broadens its appeal, ranging from enhancing medical students’ empathy to providing patients with a creative and healing outlet, and, most interestingly, enriching the performing arts with innovative representations of human experience. PasPort leans into the aesthetic domain of this spectrum while acknowledging its potential for reparative introspection and post-traumatic growth. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” wrote Wittgenstein, and this work exemplifies the capacity of art to shape and expand our understanding of illness—how we talk about and connect around it.


Endnote

[1] Related reading: V. Dakari and C. Rogers, “Theatre and/as Medicine” in Critical Stages; G. Bouchard and M. O’Brien, special issue of Performance Research “On Medicine” (issue 19 no.4, 2014); A. Mermikides,  Performance, Medicine and the Human (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama 2020); B. Lobel, Theatre and Cancer (Red Globe P, 2019); V. Baxter and K. E. Low (eds), Performing Health and Wellbeing (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama 2017); A. Mermikides and G. Bouchard (eds), Performance and the Medical Body (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama 2016); E. Brodzinski, Theatre in Health and Care (Palgrave Macmillan 2010). 


*Vinia Dakari holds a PhD in Theatre from the School of English at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her academic work involves teaching, writing and research in the intersection of theatre, health and medicine. She also serves as an associate at the Center for Support, Education and Research in Psycho-Oncology of the Hellenic Cancer Society. Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, she has been leading online virtual group Narrative Medicine sessions conducted in Greek, in collaboration with the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, New York.

Copyright © 2023 Vinia Dakari
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