10 Questions: Caitlin Skinner

News 13 Mar 2020

Donny's Brain director Caitlin Skinner talks love, neuroscience and gerbils as part of our 10 Questions interview.

1. What compels you as a director?
I make theatre as a way of better understanding the world and so I am always interested in plays that interrogate something I am wrestling with myself. I am also compelled by the other people involved and so usually I am as much interested in the other artists working on a project as I am in the project itself.

2. What attracted you to the Donny’s Brain?
Well firstly I wanted to work with Rona. She is the most intelligent person I have ever met and her writing is so spot on emotionally that I am always sucked in. With Donny’s Brain it is quite simply the best articulation of the messy pain of a relationship break up I have ever read. It speaks so truthfully of how we can be so badly behaved and so hurtful to one another, without actually being bad people.

What are the themes of the play?
What actually is love? How fragile are we? How robust are we? Brains.

4. What was your starting point for directing the play and what sort of references and research did you draw upon?
I wanted to do the biggest version of this play possible and wanted to combine Rona’s incredibly intimate, sharp and witty text with a visual and physical world that represents the human brain, so that our brains almost become another character in the play for the audience. There are a few stage directions Rona has written that gave me a clue that there could be a movement world in our production so I wanted to work with movement director Emma Jayne Park. She is so skilled at working with actors and creates movement that is rooted in the emotional world of the play and the characters. I also love working with designer Becky Minto and we really enjoy discovering the visual world of a play together so I knew she would be perfect for this. Danny Krass is a sound designer who seems to somehow be able to see inside my brain and always offers just the perfect, surprising and energising music in a rehearsal process so I was thrilled that he could be involved too. So once I have these great people on board, I think most of the research comes from working with the rest of the creative team and see where their brains take us based on Rona’s text and my initial ideas. I did read a few books on neuroscience that Rona recommended too and they blew my mind.

What has the development process for Donny’s Brain like?
So fun! We just had a really great time because the play is so good. Emma invented a game with tennis balls to explore how information passes through our brains and we developed some really cool sequences with that, though we lost a bit of time running down behind the theatre seats to retrieve tennis balls! We discovered how much the movement work could inform our understanding of the characters and the relationships so we experimented with this alongside our text work. We also messed about a lot with the hospital bed and discovered how useful it was to have the characters shift the bed around and move the action around through physical effort. The development was a lot of us falling in love with the play and getting to grips with what each of the characters is going through at each moment and sharing it with an audience at the end of the week taught us a lot. I always think the best discoveries in development are made live in front of the audience when you do a rehearsed reading.

6. How familiar were you with the world of neuroscience and the human mind before starting work on the show?
I have always found brains fascinating but have never done any research before. When workshopping the play I always ask people to say something surprising they know about the brain and it is amazing to me to hear the things that have captured people's imagination. Phantom pregnancies are the thing that blows my mind, that our heads can cause that kind of physical reaction in our bodies. I think it’s extraordinary. We have so much to learn about the human brain still and I love the sense of wonder and discovery that it ignites in people, even if it is easy to get scared and overwhelmed by neuroscience sometimes.

7. How do you want audiences to feel having watched the show?
I hope people will feel a sense of love for their fellow human beings and the fascinating journey we need to go on in order to understand our brains and our relationships better.

If you had to describe Donny’s Brain in 3 words, what would they be?
Funny, humans, science

9.What are your favourite brain training games?
Saying the alphabet backwards! Argh!

10. What's your most remarkable memory?
My sharpest early childhood memories are all to do with pain, competition or guilt. Like the time my dad hit his head off the toe bar on the car and cut his head open, or trying to beat my brother to catch a toy monkey at a fairground. But the most vivid is when my gerbil had babies and I put them in my dolls house and they all fell down the stairs! Poor bald, blind gerbil babies all falling down the stairs! I felt so bad. It is definitely that strong emotion that means I remember that moment so clearly. And this relationship between emotions and memory is exactly what we are exploring in Donny’s Brain. Come see it!

Photo: Lauren Mclay