Bio: Dr. Suvendrini Lena is an assistant professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at U of T, staff neurologist at CAMH and WCH, and a playwright. Her play The Enchanted Loom was produced by Cahoots Theatre in 2016/2017 season. Dr. Lena’s latest play, Here are the Fragments, draws from her experience working with people with schizophrenia and delves into the mysteries of the human brain, and explores the experiences and relationships of refugees.
I see that you have been involved in the arts for a long time as a resident and physician. What excites you the most about it?
For one thing, I like that we don’t have to proceed based on evidence. You can imagine, you can dream. There’s no right or wrong way to say something. It’s really just about communicating. So it gives you all this flexibility and ability to say and think things that within the confines of medicine, and these constraints they exist for reasons, you can’t always say. So, I find it to be quite freeing.
What influence has your involvement with the arts had on you as a physician?
I would say that for me, writing and theatre is the primary way in which I reflect on my identity as a physician and the meaning of healing and health in society. Because I think it’s a philosophical thing, really. But the day to day practice of medicine very rarely asks those questions and they are questions that are very important to me. If I was to practice without ever asking those questions, I think I would be quite miserable. So it’s a tremendous outlet which keeps me healthy mentally and emotionally.
Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this play?
Twenty years ago, when I was volunteering down Queen Street as a music therapist, I met a patient who started singing to me. She was a Caribbean woman who was about forty years old. She started singing a song, “Country roads take me home, to the place where I belong, West Jamaica my ol’ momma, take me home.” And I started thinking about the fact that there’s something in that which really landed for me – the question of home and belonging and how it related to mental health. And also forces of marginalization which is the flip side of that. So that voice stayed with me for the last 20 years. I work now as a neurologist at CAMH where I’m always asked to see patients with serious medical illness and I’m always thinking about the relationship between social determinants and physical symptoms.
Can you tell us a little bit about the process of putting the play together?
The Theatre Centre has a program called Residency. They enroll artists in whom they’re interested in and offer them the opportunity to create over a long period of time. In my case, it was five years ago in 2014, and now we’re opening. And they give us three weeks a year-December, August, and September-where you can get together with other artists or even work on your own towards a theatrical exploration culminating in some sort of finished work. And it means you can ask questions, you can try things, fail, run experiments and for me theatre is really about running experiments. How will the audience perceive this if we stage this in this way. How will they move, what will they think, how will they feel. So there’s a series of experiments that we run. It’s kind of like science in a way.
What made you choose an immersive format for the play?
That’s a very important question. Its immersive because typically you go to a play, you see a story on a stage, you’re always looking at those characters in that story and it’s a very objective process, it’s something out there. We wanted to have you see through the eyes of the characters as much as possible and the only way for you to do that is for you to begin in the work with them; moving through the spaces, inhabiting them as well, touching and feeling, being affected by the same objects and environments. So that was the reason, because mental health problems are not unrelatable, they’re caused by things that we all have inside.
What is one message you want your audience members to walk away with after the play?
There isn’t one single message. This play is really about every audience member making choices, experiencing others fully, really listening, leaning in and seeing. It’s about trying to learn how to see the way others see and trying to be conscious of the way that you see and that means everyone is going to do it differently and have a differently takeaway.
Can you tell us about your journey in medicine so far?
I probably was always meant to be a writer. However, I come from a medical family. My parents are both doctors so there was an expectation that you would grow up and become a doctor so I did that. And what I liked was that in medicine, you could solve problems. So every day, I knew I could solve a few problems for other people and I knew that I would find that meaningful. Which is true, I still do. I like to be able to know that at the end of the day, there are these few little things that are better out there. So, I still find that very rewarding, but I have now found a way to nurture that other part of me.
What is one lesson that you’ve learned over your career that you would like to share with our readers?
Medicine is very flexible and broad and there is a lot of possibility. So, I think there’s a place in it for every person who aspires to be a physician to find their own place. So you have to listen to yourself so that you know when you’re there. And it’s always going to change so you’ll continually find new places but there’s flexibility in it and you never have to feel like you’re contained in some way.