The Start of a Journey - With Frankie Brand
The first thing you may notice about Frankie Brand is a shock of blue hair she has at her fringe, her beautiful smile and this spark of something special behind her eyes.
What you may not get the chance to notice first time around is the scar across her stomach, a blunt physical sign of the kidney transplant she had two years back.
I've known Frankie for about 7 years and she's one of my dearest friends. She's smart, funny, dry yet compassionate, empathetic and susceptible to the charms of a cute animal. She's helped me through a lot and also just been a good buddy to hang out with, play some board games, someone who will scream in Spanish expletives during Mario Kart.
She also was for a time dying. Pretty literally. Which is something I didn't always want to acknowledge. While we were chatting in a pub or watching Great British Bake Off her kidneys were failing inside her.
After she received the advice that she should look into finding a kidney donor, she decided the best way to cope, as well as keep pin her loved ones informed and raise some sort of awareness was to start a blog (which she also started filming as well and which you can find here It starts around time she was first given the option of a transplant until the big day came. She wrote almost every day about her deteriorating health and the challenges she faced everyday. She hasn't written in it much recently, but that's cos she's working through what is just day to day life while she recovers from hopefully the biggest operation she'll
What has been driving Frankie recently is a need to help people and to raise awareness by being honest as much as she can. She's one of the few people who will answer "how are you doing." With a "I'm feeling like shit how are you?" Wi a dry smile on her face.
Okay this is where I come in.
Frankie wants to do a show and has asked me to help and do what I do best. We met back in our am dram days and she is a proficient performer. What she's used to is a script and a director, what I have to introduce her to is the world of devising and making your own story.
For her this is a chance to say something honest, to be creative and maybe change some minds on transplants, donations and long term illnesses. And she has a lot of inspirational stuff to say. Her intentions are modest but have the potential to touch a lot of people. She wants to grab the audience, by hand or by the scruff of the neck however she has to to tell her story.
And I eat that stuff up. That's what gets me excited and it's an honour to be asked to help someone with their story, to find the most effective and stunning way to tell this very important story.
For me, it's a chance to challenge myself and my work process. My recent work has either been autobiographical, taking own snapshot of my life and throwing some puppets into the mix like Buttons or Do You Mind? or biographical, so taking the story of someone I have only met through their own art or writing and trying to find their essence like my work with Charlie Ryder and Marian Partington. This story sits slap-bang in the middle of my experience, This is Frankie's story and her journey and her insurmountable odds that she has had to overcome but it's a story I saw both from afar but also right in front of my eyes. Ive seen the effects of her kidneys not being able to filter the toxins in her blood, I've left her home earlier then I expected to to give her time to nap and I waited to hear that she had survived a pretty gruelling operation. But it's still her story and is not mine to take and roll with. I'm resisting the temptation to steamroll and lead with what I find curious and insist it is the best way. This is about where Frankie wants to take it and as Her friend I am here to support and encourage her. But I also have to be a theatre-maker, I've got to facilitate and help make clear and simple decision. I've got to make sure it don't look shit. This project is all about finding that balance between doing my job and being a friend. It's also a chance to look at my process and notice if I am falli into a comfortable way of working and if I am making a style for myself and whether it's a signature or me not challenging myself. Frankie came to me after seeing my previous shows Buttons and Do You Mind? And she has been inspired to make something solo(ish) that talks straight to the audience, that hasn't got any pretence, it's just honesty with just a wee bit of artistic licence and me, piddling about with puppets in the background (it's her show after all).
I'm wanting to document this journey together, partly in honour of Frankie's own meticulous documentation of her transplant journey and also because I want to keep tabs on how I deal with this new challenge. And here's me anxiously hoping I can pull it off and feeling like a bit of an imposter.
This week we've just chatted. I gave Frankie the task of going through her blog and finding all the metaphors and images she came up with while writing about her journey day by day. That's the thing with Frankie, her way of describing her internal experiences, the pain she felt, her brain fog, her emotions, is evocative and visual. Stuff ripe for puppetry and theatre which is why she wants to make a show not JUST a damn good Ted Talk. Her brain fog is like a fish bowl, her anger is a wolf, her fear is a dragon that she has tattooed on her wrist because she wanted to take that weakness and make it a strength. Can you kind of see why I'm excited?
In talking I started learning things about Frankie I never knew which is a thrill to learn as a theatre Practioner and a friend. She talks of spirituality, her weekends LARP-ing, her experience with tarot cards, her mental health and the dream she had that inspired her tattoos. We talk abo her other tats and her desires for more, all that are about owning her strength and personal growth. All of this contrasts with her medical history, the ethics of kidney donation and the pile of anti-rejection drugs she has on her kitchen shelf.
Next time we meet we'll be actually getting things on their feet and discovering how we want to tell this story. I'm keen to find the essence of Frankie's story and her medium of telling it. I know I've got my puppets to fall back on and she's excited to use them. But there's this lively burning creativity she has I'm keen to explore. I haven't even had time to mention Frankie also models (and she has a couple of these photos in her front room), does burlesque (currently in training) as a hobby and has made her spare room a space for crafting. This is all about Frankie, her story, her expression, her creativity. I'm just there to support and make puppets. I want to find how she can tell her story. And it's so bloody exciting.
You can find more about Frankie and read back on her journey here - http://kidneyfailureexperience.blogspot.co.uk/
Also take a look at Kidney Research UK the wonderful organisation that Frankie has been supporting - https://www.kidneyresearchuk.org/