Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council
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Leah Bridget Lewis - The Dialysis Project

Location: St. John's, NL
ArtsNL Program Funded Under: Professional Project Grants Program
Amount Funded: $9,297

Leah Lewis by a dialysis unit

Leah Lewis standing by a dialysis unit.

Dates: June 2016 to November 2016
Artist E-mail:

Leah Lewis has been an active and versatile professional artist since the mid 90s upon her graduation from Concordia University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts that included specializations in theatre and performance. Lewis has continued building upon those skills over the years amidst her practice. An earlier highlight in her career and body of work was when the Resource Centre for the Arts Theatre Company selected her script Spelunking in 1997 for the Significant Other Series.

As her stage acting portfolio continues to grow, landing roles in a number of Artistic Fraud productions such as Under Wraps and Chekhov Variations among others, Lewis also added screen credits. She was Bette in the feature film Rare Birds (2001), appeared in Stephen Dunn’s 2007 short Lionel Lonely Heart, and worked on The Grand Seduction (2013), among others.

Since 2009, her personal creative work has centered on a lived experience with illness. It was in that year that a 23 year long kidney transplant ultimately failed her; she was also planning a return to post secondary studies to achieve a PhD. Lewis was afforded the opportunity to take training to self-administer her dialysis treatments, and the profound adjustment in her life shifted the focus of her doctoral studies.

headshot photo of Robert Chafe

Robert Chafe

A year later, Lewis’ original work Good Grief: Meaning Making through an Illness Narrative was presented at Concordia. The short film was again presented by Lois Brown’s NAX Theatre, alongside Lewis’ latest stage script Strange of My Heart in the spring of 2015. These two projects along with conversations Lewis had with long time friend Robert Chafe, and Brown, began to inform a new idea – The Dialysis Project.

In Brown, Lewis found a kindred spirit of sorts. Brown had been through her own painful experience following a 2008 event which saw her struck by an SUV. Brown went on to create new artistic pieces resulting from her recovery process, and it was her Injury, Illness, Pain, Sadness, Grief and Performance series that had taken place in spring 2015.

Lewis had discussed creative strategies to adapt her dialysis treatment into a live performance of some kind with Chafe, who encouraged the concept. But, initially the machine and tools used for home based treatment were barriers due to mobility and size. Eventually Eastern Health adopted a new machine design for the home dialysis program, one that is much simpler to operate, requiring less maintenance, and is much more mobile.

On Lewis’ third day of instruction to learn how to operate the new machine, Chafe consequently sent her a text of encouragement, “you have to write that dialysis show now that you have that machine! Let’s do this!”

Brown has championed the project as well, calling it “innovative, elegant, and necessary” adding that “it promises to be a fascinating intersection of art, knowledge, and humanity.”

Lewis says the goal of The Dialysis Project will be to push the boundaries of performance and create intimacy and beauty from the harshness of illness and medical procedure. Based on the work so far, the Toronto based Buddies in Bad Times Theatre has already expressed a desire to include the work in their Rhubarb Festival in February 2017.

Between now and then, Lewis plans to have workshop presentations of the project to get it just right, and we chat with her about The Dialysis Project in this latest feature…

Q and A with Leah Bridget Lewis...

ArtsNL: What had been your original intention for your doctoral work? The genesis of The Dialysis Project seemed to come progressively, what’s it like to reflect on that moment now?

Leah: My original plan for doctoral studies was about high conflict divorce. Very different. The shift to patient voice, performance/arts oriented process, was organic and met more neatly with who I am as an artist and scholar. Of course, this shift was heavily informed by what was happening in my life; namely the loss of my 23 year transplant and beginning dialysis.

ArtsNL: Can you share a little bit more about the kidney disease you’ve had since childhood, and the challenges you’ve faced as a result for a number of years?

Leah: I’ve had kidney disease since infancy. It was slow to diagnose, which may have contributed to the condition becoming permanent. I’ve never known life not having kidney disease, though I was fortunate to have had a kidney transplant for about 23 years; which is unusually long, given that most transplants last an average of 15 years. While transplant has its own challenges (i.e. medication to avoid rejection of the transplant are hard on the body, bones, skin etc…), I did enjoy relative good health and freedom.

Dialysis, on the other hand, necessarily limits one’s freedom because of the regular treatments, three to four times a week - about 16 waking hours. (Dialysis is hard on the body, because it removes all the blood and filters it externally multiple times in a three hour timeframe. This affects blood pressure, vascular  health, diet - many patients feel like they’ve bit hit by a dump truck after treatment.) As a result, my personal life and freedom has been significantly affected; where I live, when I socialize, what I eat; I rarely travel.

No Man's Land cast

Evalyn Parry

ArtsNL: What is that transplant process like? Finding out it’s needed, waiting, getting a match, going through the process, and managing life after? And, you have to go through that process again now?

Leah: It’s been a very long time since I’ve had a transplant. In short, though, for those who receive calls from the transplant list, receiving a kidney usually means an urgent call from the regional transplant program. The call could theoretically occur at any time of day or night and the patient needs to be on a plane and in surgery within hours - or the kidney won’t be useable.

The assessment for transplant is lengthy and complex, involving many medical and blood tests. Prospective donors undergo many tests as well. I am currently on a number of transplant lists; both regional and national, including something called a paired-exchange, which is a live donor database of individuals wishing to donate on behalf of a loved one - a match means my donors will give to a stranger and a stranger will give to me. Because I’m difficult to match, I also meet the criteria for a special national list for difficult-to-match patients. That means if I could get a call from any region in Canada.

ArtsNL: What is the narrative that is told through The Dialysis Project? And, what impressions/thoughts do you hope to leave audiences with?

Leah: The Dialysis Project uses a treatment set up as a framework for the overall performance. The narrative will really focus on how relationship is marked and informed by illness and dialysis. While some of the images will touch on difficult themes, the overall intention is to communicate the beauty and joy that can emerge from experiences like this.

ArtsNL: How have Robert and Lois been involved as you’ve gone through your creative development process? What other ways will they be involved as you move closer to refining the presentation?

Leah: Lois has been involved early in the process from a dramaturgical perspective. Robert will be dramaturge for the intensive development workshop in December, which will culminate with a workshop performance of a first-phase version of the show.

ArtsNL: Why was it important for you to do this project?

Leah: The importance of this show is multifaceted. Few know much about dialysis, let alone the sheer numbers of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians that rely on it as a life-maintaining procedure. So part of my intent is to inform and demystify it. I’m also interested in sharing this piece with other dialysis patients, who’ve I’ve come to know over the past seven years. Their lives, their jobs, keep trucking on with their thrice weekly hospital visits for their treatments. Finally, I’m interested in how performance and theatre is a means of translating and mobilizing knowledge.

ArtsNL: The project is multidiscipline in nature; can you talk about how different artistic disciplines will converge for the presentation?

Leah: I believe the performance is a broad concept. The nuanced nature of illness experience informs many layers of life; personal, professional, family relationships, how ideas are formulated, how experiences and decisions are made, what food one consumes, love and sex, intimacy of all forms.

My doctoral performance was in the form of a short film, as I didn’t consider live performance to suit what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to represent a moment in time. In the case of this piece, The Dialysis Project, my interest is in depicting the way that medical procedure creates separateness (both real and perceived) between self and others. While I feel a separateness certainly exists, I also feel that illness can inform a richness and intimacy in relationship which otherwise would be, at least, different, and at most nonexistent. Illness creates a certain type of meaning of life experience, which is unique to other experiences. I’d even venture to say that dialysis, in particular, because it pulls you away from the momentum of life in order administer regular life maintaining procedure - speaks more profoundly to this than other chronic conditions. The use of projection, juxtaposing different lenses of performance, seeks to explore this theme of separateness in an aesthetic way.

ArtsNL: Can you talk about some of the challenges you faced as you developed the project? Creative obstacles, presentation elements, or even just emotional challenges – and how you over came them?

Leah: This performance represents a different phase in my dialysis experience. Previous work looked at coping with illness and necessary procedures like dialysis - so it explored themes of loss and grief. So I will say that I’ve experienced some profound sadness due to the loss of my transplant and dialysis - also, the experience included accepting the reality that transplant is unlikely. So, large life themes that are connected to health and mortality.

The Dialysis Project, instead, seeks to relay dialysis as a state of established normalcy (I’ve been on dialysis for over seven years now). For me, this experience has informed my relationships with more intimacy and meaning - directly as a result of illness and dialysis. It also makes humorous moments funnier.

ArtsNL: What are the details surrounding the workshop presentation and how can people take that in? Will there be a performance of the finalized show in the province?

Leah: The December workshop performance will be mostly attended by invited audience. As the first incarnation of the show, I’ll be seeking feedback and open the floor to questions - for purposes of revisiting edits and direction in anticipation of future official runs - both at Buddies in Bad Times and RCA later in 2017. There will, however, be a few seats for others to attend. The tentative date for this workshop performance is December 7, 2016 in the MMAPS space at the ACC.

ArtsNL: What does it mean for you to have the interest of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre while you’re still in the developmental stage and why is that important?

Leah: As one of Canada’s leaders in alternative theatre and performance, the fact that BBT have shown interest in this show excites and motivates me. Evalyn Parry, their artistic director and a prolific performer herself, will direct this first version of the show - her own work in some ways has inspired me, as styles of performance that are visceral and evocative. I’m confident that she and Robert Chafe - both dear friends and admired colleagues - will be great mentors in shaping my concept into an engaging and edgy piece of performance.

ArtsNL: How does the ArtsNL funding from the Professional Project Grants Program help?

Leah: Were it not for ArtsNL’s support, The Dialysis Project would not be moving ahead at the rate that it is - with the creative team that it has. It’s as simple as that. As I stated in my initial proposal, this piece is important because it demystifies dialysis by performing it. Via the aesthetic of performance, the piece will relay an experience (dialysis) that I’d venture to say, most know little or nothing about - and performance relays knowledge in a different and accessible way. The workshop in December will invite dialysis patients from the St. John’s area to seek their input/feedback. I’m also hoping to give voice to this often silent group.

ArtsNL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Leah: Only to reiterate my acknowledgement that ArtsNL’s support of this project has made it possible. So thanks for that and see you at the show!