Musical takes a look at battling an enemy you can’t escape

By Amanda Hu

Try to envision an epic battle with an adversary so invasive and inescapable, they can often take complete control of your mind and movements. Every attempt to fight them is met with marked resistance and even the tools that are meant to help in the war can turn against you at a moment’s notice. This is the plight of someone diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a brain ailment seen as a mortal enemy by many who are afflicted by it, one that slowly degrades the ability to move, communicate and lead a normal life.

Ghost River Theatre is revisiting their exploration of this conflict in their second run of the critically acclaimed Alan Parkinson’s Project. The musical, though not directly in reference to, was inspired by someone close to the company’s heart: founder Doug Curtis, the original director and co-creator of the project who was diagnosed with the disease in 2003. Doug McKeag, who reprises his role as a filmmaker in his prime suddenly hit with news of his illness, says that tensions were high in trying to lay the foundation for the play the first time around.

“The emotions were as raw as sushi,” McKeag recalls. “But there’s that saying that an artist can’t be too familiar with the subject, so we had to have that distance. We couldn’t just watch Doug in the corner of the room and just do what he did. This is the Alan Parkinson’s project, not the Doug Curtis Project.”

This time around McKeag says the play benefits from a more polished production, a new venue–Vertigo Theatre instead of the Currie Barracks–the foresight given to them by its inaugural run, along with Curtis being able to take a step back from the company to focus on his health, and a mostly new cast with fresh perspectives.

The play itself takes an in-depth look at the biological processes behind the disease, using a whimsical representation of the brain with personified neurotransmitters, and lends a tangible element to Parkinson’s disease as an adversary. It even delves into the negative reactions that some of Parkinson’s treatments can cause, all furthering the reality of what actual patients have to deal with day-to-day.

“You get this general idea that those people shake a lot, but it’s much more vicious than that under the surface,” McKeag explains. “You never know where it’s going to hit next: feet, neck, mouth. The drugs the patient takes to treat the disease are psychotropic and can cause hallucinations. There is also the nasty dyskinesia, which causes some of the [extreme] movements we often see.”

The production’s musical format itself helps to portray Parkinson’s in a relatable light, but keeps the true sufferers of the disease at the heart of it all.

“[A musical] lets the audience off the hook,” McKeag says. “[The production] is not just two hours of someone with Parkinson’s, so it can be lighter and more enjoyable. The musical is a great form because many Parkinson’s patients can respond to music. Music therapy can reach them on a different level.”

As theatre often has the ability to present real world issues in a way that is touching and close to an audience, the company hopes to spur interest in the disease, inspire discourse and tell the story that many of the patients can’t articulate themselves.

“Through all that special marketing, Parkinson’s is often the brain diseases’ poor sister: vastly under-funded for research and it’s a very private disease,” McKeag says. “It’s really hard to be in public when you have this disease, so you can’t really put a face on it.”

McKeag also hopes that audiences can identify with the universal story encompassing the production. He says it is one that surpasses the illness itself.

“It’s really about caring for someone close to you,” he says. “Because the impact on everyone around you is profound, how does a person diagnosed in the prime of their life go on? It’s about finding the grace in life to go on as all of us are living in an age where brain disease in this world is on the rise.”

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