Amy Leigh Horan is a playwright, photographer, and PR professional who currently lives in Washington, DC. We are so pleased to have Amy at this year’s 5th Annual Honey Bash Gala as one of very special guests. Her play Burst: is a recollection with humor and heart of her mother’s survival of a brain aneurysm. Burst explores the comedy and clarity of crisis and love as their mother lies in a coma in the Neuro ICU. The 3 siblings find a home in a waiting room.
Image courtesy of Parlor Roon Theatre.
We caught up with Amy to find out more on her play, her experience, and her story.
How is life different now for you and your family after this experience?
Hmm, good question. I would first note that my family didn’t encounter the play until performances. At that point, I, alongside a really incredible cast and creative team with Parlor Room Theater, had worked on building the world of the play for months; we had crafted and calculated every moment of every scene, watched the set go up, costumes come together, etc, etc. But to my family, the play was like a time warp back to some of the hardest days of their lives, and it was very emotional. The realistic space and sounds were at first overwhelming. There were lots of tears and hugs, but eventually healing. I think the play was a catalysis for catharsis for my family.
What was the most difficult part of this experience overall?
I’d say the most difficult thing was the responsibility I felt to tell an honest, vulnerable story about the devastating effects of brain aneurysms on a person, family, and community. It’s a funny play, but I was always wary that it might be too funny – there is nothing funny about loss, and yet humans are funny, and families are funny, and you often find yourself seeking or creating laughter in the darkness. On the other hand, I didn’t want it to be too depressing or heavy – I understood that there would be people in the audience that could personally identify with this story and the last thing I wanted to do was traumatize them further. Instead, I tried to offer a human story about a family that really does love each other (even if they’re not great at showing it). The play is filled with both hurt and hope.
What compelled you to write a play about your experience?
I have always worked in and studied theater, and I believe it’s an incredibly powerful medium for catharsis and community – two things I yearned for in the aftermath of my mom’s ruptured aneurysm. So… I wish I could say that’s why I started writing it (it was why I kept writing it, and worked hard to get it produced, that’s for sure!) but to be honest I began writing it out of curiosity! I come from a big, Boston-bred Irish Catholic family and when my mom was in her coma, my dad made a rule (the doctors said it was best to reduce sound stimuli) that only one of us would be in mom’s Neuro ICU room at a time. (An important rule for a loud family.) So, we’d take turns sitting in this busy waiting room, bantering with each other, often joking to pass the time. Then we’d go into the Neuro ICU for one-on-one time with our mom. Her coma carried on for days, then weeks, and I couldn’t help but wonder – what is my dad, my grandfather, my oldest sister saying to her in there? So I started to imagine that. The scenes of the play go back and forth between a big family in the waiting room and each person alone in the Neuro ICU.
Why is it so important for you to tell your story in an artistic manner?
The theater is one of the most immediate artforms – you can’t pause it, rewind, fast forward, walk away from it. That’s how grief feels to me.
Your play shows a family finding themselves and growing closer because of the mother’s brain aneurysm. Do you find that this happened in your family as well?
I did find that. It took time. There is a bit in the play where the character Erin is talking to her comatose mother in the ICU and she says:
“I’ve felt, over the past two days, mum, I’ve felt that we – me, Ally, Stephen, Kira – we’re all like these glasses of water filled to the brim, lined up right next to each other. And we want to see how each other are doing but if we move, even the slightest, we’ll not only knock ourselves over, we’ll knock everyone else over too. So we don’t check-in on each other, we don’t even try. We just try to stay standing.”
And I think that’s really how we felt. Going through it, we were physically there but we weren’t always saying the right thing, because we just didn’t have the capacity to. But we kept showing up. One of the things that intrigued me when writing about family was the question “how are we capable of treating the people we love the most in the world the worst?” And it was gratifying that audience members and critics identified that the strength of the play is that it shows a real family – dysfunction and all. The director, cast, and creative team did an incredible job of capturing this messy, needy love.
What is the main message you would want viewers of your play to take away from the story?
I think that plays can give you permission to have conversations you otherwise wouldn’t – through the characters that aren’t you, about circumstances that you know, but aren’t yours. I think the best thing that happened after the play was that people would talk about their own times in the hospital, with their loved ones. One woman shared with me following a performance, “I remembered how much I learned as my father died, about myself, and that was a good thing.” That means everything to me. Art gives people permission to open up about things that they otherwise wouldn’t talk about. And brain aneurysms are a very taboo subject.
How has the rising success of “Burst” affect you and your family?
It was exciting to see a positive response from audiences and critics, but the most exciting thing was definitely the personal connections we made throughout the weeks of performances. We partnered with the Brain Aneurysm Foundation (BAF) from Boston for the run of the show and they provided materials for us to educate our audience members about brain aneurysms (lobby displays, information in programs).
One night, we hosted the BAF for a post-show conversation about brain aneurysms and their effects, early detection, etc. Almost every audience member stayed for it. There were three people who had driven all the way from New York (the play was produced in DC) just to see Burst after seeing a post about it on the BAF’s facebook page. Their mother had recently experienced a ruptured aneurysm and they hoped to find support and community at the play. They did, and we’re still in touch. (Happy to report the mother is in rehabilitation!)
People are desperate for community, and this play was able to help a few people find it. That’s incredibly humbling.
What advice would you give for someone taking care of another that has experienced a brain aneurysm?
I would say be patient, you have no idea how hard their brain and body is working. My mom had a pretty miraculous recovery, but she also had to work hard for almost a year to feel like she was more or less back to her “old self.” And I know we’re incredibly blessed, sometimes there is no going back to an “old self.” For us, we had no idea what was in store but we tried to stay grounded in giving thanks every day for even having her around. When you’re in a Neuro ICU for an extended period of time, you get to know the other families. Most people do not have the story we have. So I’d say if your loved one has survived a ruptured brain aneurysm, celebrate every moment as best you can.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The Bee Foundation is doing incredible work in honoring those who have lost their lives because of brain aneurysms, creating a community for loved ones affected, and funding crucial research that will help us detect and treat aneurysms. I hope to see you all at the Honey Bash Gala!
Burst played until May 27, 2018, at Parlor Room Theater performing at the Callan Theatre in the Hartke Theatre Complex on the campus of Catholic University – 3801 Harewood Road, NE, in Washington, DC. Stay tuned for more information on future performances.
To hear Amy speak at Honey Bash on her personal experience from her mother’s recovery and her experience about the play, get your ticket for Honey Bash today.