Wits City Institute Performance

Performing Helen Joseph Hospital

Wits City Institute Fellow Tarryn Lee’s Master of Arts by Research in Drama and Film project culminated in the performance piece Beyond the linoleum colon, based on an investigation into how the space of the hospital is shaped by the stories told within its walls.

16 – 17 November 2016 / King David High School, Victory Park, Johannesburg

Words: Jill Weintroub

Image: Max Thomik

Performance is not the medium conventionally chosen to comment on public health services or facilities – not in South Africa nor in the world at large. But it is the medium chosen by Wits City Institute Fellow Tarryn Lee, for her Master of Arts by Research in Drama and Film (awarded with Distinction) project in the Drama Department of the Wits School of Arts.


Lee, and co-creators and performers Siphumeze Khundayi, Colin Skelton and Renos Spanoudes, composed and collated the outcomes of weeks of close engagement with stories told by patients, as well as the medical and support staff of the Helen Joseph Hospital, so as to construct a narrative of the building. The result is the performance piece Beyond the linoleum colon.

As artist-researcher, Lee engaged in private interviews with patients, sharing transcriptions of the data she collected with the three actors through the 14-week rehearsal process. Comments Lee: ‘I enrolled the actors as co-researchers through the reading and interpretation of the data, but they were not allowed for ethical reasons to engage directly with the participants (patients, clinicians, cleaners, nurses). However, the actors did visit the site to document their own experiences of, and insights into, the people and the building.’

I was lucky enough to attend one of the two performances of the piece that took place in Johannesburg in November 2016. Both were for examination purposes with Lee sharing her directorial intentions and Performance as Research (PaR) methodology with the audience before we entered the theatre, and again afterwards, when she solicited post-performance audience participation and discussion. ‘This production is a response to the research data I collected from participants in the public hospital space, translated and mediated for audiences via PaR methodology, which proposes that, through the process of making a work of theatre, new and/or alternate knowledge can be generated,’ Lee explained. She employed mime, physical and ensemble technique theatre, and shadow puppetry to ‘reimagine the public health building through performance and offer new ways of seeing, knowing and understanding the public health site’.

As a member of the audience in an intimate theatre space, I found the performance profoundly moving. It was troubling, discomforting, edgy, claustrophobic, engrossing, and sad. Almost without words or dialogue, the performance piece told a multi-layered story: about Helen Joseph hospital, a health facility freighted with contradictory and storied moments of neglect and compassion (a tale with parallels synching along the lines of the larger narrative of the nation on its rollercoaster ride from hope to despair to hope, and back again), and a generalised story about hospitals and public health care in South Africa, and no doubt in other parts of the world. I felt that I had been taken on an intense and visceral explorative journey through the universal space of illness: disruptive and isolating in the extreme, but also redemptive – even though sometimes only momentarily so.

I found the discussion after the performance worthwhile, especially the points made by others in the audience about the performance being to some extent ‘a witnessing’ of the pain/experience of others, of it being a somewhat ‘anti-narrative’, expressionist performance- or theatre-making, it being about space and people – where the building is filled up and given volume and contour by the experiences/stories/narratives told by all of the different people within its walls.

Notwithstanding the obvious physical investment demanded by their multi-faceted roles, Lee’s performing colleagues participated in the post-performance discussion. It was clear that the exploration and dissection of the narrative data provided to them had deeply affected them: their ‘witnessing’ had changed them forever. They did not want audiences to dismiss the hospital as an indifferent, hopeless, negative space. In the course of their engagement with the research, it emerged clearly that they had experienced profoundly affecting and inspiring insights. As convoluted, labyrinthine, and haphazard the hospital experience might be, as a physical space under constant reconstruction and renovation – despite this, each of them intuited the aura of immense and meaningful caring within its walls.