Speech and language therapist Kathryn Bond reflects on a new play about stammering, which premiered in Leeds in July 2017.
Unspoken is a dramatic exploration of a person’s experience of living with a stammer. It intensely illustrates how Alex the main character responds to his stammer, to other people’s perceived and actual responses to his stammer, and how those responses have impacted on the choices Alex has made and may make in his life.
Alex’s torment is that he has hidden his stammer from his girlfriend. The play delves into his psychological conflict about whether to risk being open about his stammer or not before he proposes to her that day. The key background question is, ‘What will Alex do?’
Ironically Unspoken is a play about voices - Alex’s quest to find his own distinctive voice in a mind jumbled with voices of memories, worries, hopes, fears. An abrupt, voice-recording telling us, ‘shut up’, ‘be quiet’ periodically interrupts our talking as the audience wait for the play to begin. I wonder if the voice is directed at me. I think it’s annoying to be interrupted.
An abrupt, voice-recording telling us, ‘shut up’, ‘be quiet’ periodically interrupts our talking as the audience wait for the play to begin.
As the play begins Alex’s mum, dad, deceased gran, his girlfriend, best friend and another more disturbing figure move like ghosts in the swirling, smoky shadows of the stage. We work out the figure is a personification of Alex’s stammer, a wrestler who throughout the play provokes Alex. The wrestler is a paradox; constantly lurking in the background, choking Alex and wrestling him to the ground in one scene, yet offering Alex a sympathetic helping hand in another. Alex’s stammer is a part of him and we long for the struggle to stop and for Alex and the wrestler to make peace.
We first meet Alex standing in his underpants drying himself. For the duration of the play he stands vulnerable at the front of the stage where he looks into the audience as if they are a mirror. He reacts to and interacts with the various voices in his mind, sometimes fluently sometimes stammering. In his exposed torso we witness the severe tension in his muscles as he forces out his words, because stammering is how he talks sometimes.
There was no interval; the intensity increased over an hour and a half creating knots in the pit of my stomach
For my part, sitting in the audience, the experience was uncomfortable and exhausting on physical, emotional and psychological levels. There was no interval; rather than the tension dissipating, the intensity increased over an hour and a half creating knots in the pit of my stomach. The outcome seemed bleak. There were lighter moments; particularly special was the gentle supportive relationship in Alex’s memories between himself and his dad and the rare occasions when Alex smiled. But mostly I wanted to shout out, ‘It doesn’t have to be like this.’ I was utterly absorbed in the action yet at the same time desperately longed for the ordeal to end; for relief.
Other moments of discomfort were linked to my vocation as a speech and language therapist, as Alex’s fluency-focussed speech and language therapy was not presented positively, with Alex sharing that when attempting such techniques he is not himself. I understand there are inconsistent approaches to speech and language therapy for stammering both within the NHS and the private sector. There is an accelerating need for a global shift towards accepting stammering as a different way of talking, of celebrating difference, for openness and self-advocacy; a reduction in barriers to both ease and increase communicative participation for people who stammer.
At the play’s finale the audience have their catharsis. However it hit home hard that the fight for Alex lives on, as the end so cruelly highlighted, when fully suited with engagement ring in pocket, Alex walks out through the audience entrance with the trail of ‘voices’ following him. ‘…We’re coming with you,’ one of the voices says with calming menace.
In Alex’s mind his girlfriend gave two responses to his potential revelation; one hopeful, highly empathetic and understanding, and the other a more worrying response where she rejects him. We all have anxieties and fears that can affect the choices we make. Do we choose to listen to the negative voices of our past, present and the anxieties that fuel avoidance or do we tell those voices to ‘shut up’, ‘be quiet’? What Alex decides to do remains ‘unspoken’. How will he choose to respond?
In this sense the play was very human, about the complexity and variety of human relationships and how one’s experience of life affects one’s actions. However in the stammering community, people will identify with how some people who stammer sacrifice important personal values and goals in an attempt to control or hide their stammer. These sacrifices may be small such as not ordering what you want in a restaurant (a scene which happened in the play) and really life-changing, giving up on a dream or a particular vocation.
Learning from the play
The ardent emotions Alex characterises also served to remind me not to become complacent in my vocational role; the feelings and negative thoughts of the people I work with every day and their families are real to them and run deep. It is important to see every new person as unique, and to begin each new therapeutic relationship freshly as if what you hear, observe and sense has been experienced for the first time. I have the privilege of working with people who stammer on an everyday basis, I must not presume that I understand each new person who walks through my door based on previous knowledge.
The ardent emotions Alex characterises served to remind me not to become complacent in my role as a therapist
I would hope that the play invoked affective empathy in the audience. My fear is that empathy will not be acted on. We can make audiences feel, but the hope is that they will also be challenged to take a step back and question the status quo: educate themselves about stammering; change their unhelpful responses to people who stammer to more helpful responses; begin to question society’s currently fluency-focussed culture with a media bent on the creation of tear-jerking moments when people ‘overcome’ their stammer. The questions are provoked, ‘What will be different? What next?’
Unspoken gives a powerful insight into how a person can be impacted by a stammer and certainly raises awareness. Stammering is mostly mis-understood. I optimistically imagine a sequel called ‘Spoken’, where society accepts stammering as a different way of talking that some people do sometimes, where stammering is free not controlled and the wrestler and person who stammer have fun and adventures rough and tumbling in the ring of life.
Kathryn Bond is a Highly Specialist Speech and Language Therapist in Dysfluency Bradford District Care Foundation Trust.
'Unspoken' was written by Neil Rathmell in collaboration with Dr. Trudy Stewart. 'Unspoken' premiered at the Carriagework Theatre, Leeds, July 5th – July 8th 2017. Dr. Trudy Stewart directed the play with advice from members of the stammering community from their experience of living with a stammer.