In Conversation with Dr. Suvendrini Lena, playwright of “The Enchanted Loom”
by Bailey Green
The story of The Enchanted Loom, written by Dr. Suvendrini Lena, begins in Toronto, where demonstrations against the Sri Lankan civil war have taken over the Gardiner expressway. The protests take place during the final weeks of the war and trigger memories of trauma for a Tamil family. The family had come to Canada to escape the violence in Sri Lanka. The father, Thangan, was imprisoned and tortured during the war. He struggles to cope with epilepsy brought on by scars in his head from the beatings he endured. As Thangan’s seizures worsen, his family begins to unravel. In order to have a chance to heal, Thangan must decide whether to undergo a surgery that would cut out his scars but could erase pieces of his memory. One memory in particular, a memory of his oldest son who died during the war, Thangan doesn’t know if he can bear to lose. “The surgery is a metaphor for how societies and communities can move through trauma, will it fix things or won’t it? How deeply are these traumas embedded in us and in our communities?” says Dr. Suvendrini Lena, neurologist and playwright of The Enchanted Loom, produced by Factory Theatre and Cahoots Theatre, on stage now to November 27th.
The Enchanted Loom is the product of years of hard work that took place while Dr. Lena worked full-time as a neurologist and raised her child as a single mother. The play was first developed as a research project about epilepsy. Subsequently, the play has grown to explore the dynamics of family. “I chose epilepsy because seizures are a huge disruption of consciousness. It arrests everything and you don’t know what is going to happen next,” Dr. Lena explains. “There’s a potential of being paralyzed so you’re very vulnerable. And that is what happens in war, the kind of disruptions and the way daily life becomes unlivable.” The play focuses on the question of whether or not Thangan will chose to have a surgery that Dr. Lena describes as a unique procedure: “The patients are often awake so that when the parts of the brain are being removed the doctors can preserve everything around them, as much as possible. It is one of the penultimate scenes, this awake craniotomy, and it is very evocative – you can see consciousness right in front of you.”
Working on her first play has helped illuminate Dr. Lena’s work at CAMH. “I have learned a huge amount from watching the actors play these characters,” Dr Lena says. “The family life [in the play] is structured by [Thangan’s] illness and every aspect is affected[…] I teach a course on theatre and medicine to medical residents and I do that because theatre allows us to inhabit alternate lives. As doctors you need to be in a patient’s position and understand what that means.”
The play’s title is drawn from a quote written by pioneer neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington. Sherrington used ‘the enchanted loom’ as a metaphor for the mystery of the brain. “Memory, to me, is this intricate fabric that is being reworked by everything that happens. It is the key to the future but is constantly changing, being influenced by what other people remember and by the present,” Dr. Lena says. “The whole play is about the family’s memory of trauma and how it informs their future and the difficulty of remembering traumatic things but also the necessity to remember them in order to heal from them.”
Marjorie Chan, Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre, is the director of The Enchanted Loom. Dr. Lena expresses her gratitude and admiration for Chan’s patience and expertise: “I don’t have a playwright’s training, but she championed this play with 6 actors and poetic medical language and has woven it together in this beautiful way. I couldn’t be in better hands. It has been spectacular, like nothing else.”
For Dr. Lena, the greatest joy of working on this play may be seeing it on stage now during its run, when the play has come together fully. “It has been so meaningful to know this is a story worth telling,” says Dr. Lena. “Epilepsy is a stigmatized illness and a difficult illness. To have people take risks to portray it and the Sri Lankan story…to remember what happened and how the future could be different… it’s quite something to see it fully realized on stage at Factory.”
The Enchanted Loom
Written by Suvendrini Lena
Directed by Marjorie Chan
A Cahoots Theatre production in association with Factory Theatre
The Sri Lankan civil war has left many scars on Thangan and his family, most noticeably the loss of his eldest son and crippling epileptic seizures brought on by his torture during the war. As the final days of the war play out; the family watches from Toronto, where a neurological procedure provides them with a chance to heal. This poetic play, part medical, part mystical is a harrowing tale of loss and hope that reminds us of the joys and pain of unconditional love for family, and freedom.
ASL Interpreted Performance, followed by a Post-Show Q&A, Sunday, November 20
Factory Theatre Studio Theatre
125 Bathurst St.
November 10-27, 2016