Out of your mind

What happens in a coma?

John was upsetting the other patients. He had been in and out of comatose states for six months, intermittently groaning and yelling words that nobody could understand. Eventually, the nurses asked Arnold Mindell to help. Mindell, an American analyst, initially approached the old man’s bed with certain light-hearted remarks about keeping the noise down – but without success. John carried on moaning.

“I decided to follow his sounds,” Mindell says. ”’Ohhh, oooh, wow, yeah,’ I groaned with him, approximating the sounds of his breathing.” He also squeezed John’s hand in time with his heartbeat.

After 20 minutes, John’s muffled shouts became distinguishable words. “Yeah. Wow,” he muttered. “No, yeah, oha” And a little later, Mindell managed a conversation with the patient, persuading him to describe his ecstatic visions. John, he established, was looking at a ship crewed by angels. But the old man didn’t dare to step on board – not until Mindell assured him it would be all right: “You should consider a little trip,” he said.

“Yeah. Yeah. Vacation, to the Bahamas. Baa haa masa Yeah. Hmmma No work.” With that, John became quiet, and went to sleep. Half an hour later, when Mindell returned to check on him, John was dead.

This brief, eerily moving story opens Arnold Mindell’s book, Coma: Key to Awakening, which has inspired an entire show from one of the most impressive theatre companies in Britain. Unlikely as it sounds, Improbable Theatre has dramatised what happened to John on the borderline between wakefulness and death.

The point behind the show, which opens at the Traverse in Edinburgh this week before moving to the Arches in Glasgow, is that people such as John are not lost to a coma but going through potentially meaningful inner experiences. We are wrong, Mindell suggests, to think that the mind in a coma simply goes blank. The opposite could be true: in coma, the mind races faster than ever, processing ideas and emotions that elude us in ordinary states of consciousness. And, with the right methods, we can communicate with people even while they are comatose. Another of Mindell’s patients, Peter – whose case is described at greater length than John’s – attains high levels of self -awareness by discussing with Mindell what occurs in the comas that precede his eventual death from leukaemia.

It may not sound like the most promising material – but that’s what the critics have said about everything staged by the well-named Improbable Theatre. Their last show, Shockheaded Peter, was based on a book of 19th century cautionary tales from Germany, but despite that apparent disadvantage proved an international success, winning the TMA Awards best director trophy and the Critics’ Circle best design award (it is still touring now). 70 Hill Lane used large amounts of Sellotape to tell the “true” story of an encounter with a poltergeist, what one critic memorably described as “Blue Peter meets Blue Velvet.” Another, Lifegame, involved actors improvising performances based on the raw memories of audience members: their happiest moments, worst nightmares, biggest challenges, and so on. People sniffed about that initially, but the critics loved it.

“We are at our best when we put ourselves into stupid places,” says Julian Crouch, one of the company’s three artistic directors. “Here, you look at the title of the show, Coma, and people go, ‘How depressing’. But it’s quite positive and upbeat.” Western Europeans have considerable difficulty dealing with death, says Crouch, a father in his 30s who finds it “remarkable” that he has never sat down and looked at a dead body. “It’s a very serious and sombre subject on the surface. But as you go on through Arnie’s book it’s really ecstatic – even when people are dying.”

Indeed, reading the book, it’s hard sometimes to suppress vaguely embarrassed laughter as Mindell sets about communicating with his comatose patients. “We screamed and shouted together for a long time,” he writes at one point, “stretching the limits of the hospital’s clinical regulations.”

But Mindell avoids jargon, and it’s precisely his humanity which is moving. When Peter wakes to tell his wife he loves her, Mindell admits: “I got embarrassed, and got up to leave.” (They asked him to stay.)

Crouch’s fellow director, Phelim McDermott, first came across Mindell’s work 10 years ago, shortly after his own grandmother had died. He went to a workshop, along with numerous therapists. “This would normally make me cringe,” admits McDermott, “but when he started working, it was fantastic.”

So two years ago McDermott suggested Coma to Crouch and the company’s third artistic director, Lee Simpson, as the basis for a show. It represents a natural progression, he says: “Mindell’s work has influenced everything we’ve done.”

Mindell teaches that we can all experience coma just by getting on the floor and trying it for ourselves. And not just coma but even death itself. “Do not wait to die, but do it now,” runs his exacting injunction. “Lie down and die. Notice what stops when you die.” You can see how this might appeal to a performer. “That is what actors do,” says McDermott. “You don’t say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t want to be a murderer, in Macbeth’.”

And anyway, we all fall occasionally into trances. When others chatter too much, we drift off. When writing, or doing something else strongly internal, we’re further gone still. But it’s only in coma that we’re unlikely to respond even when pinched, or shouted at.

That’s what the company discovered in rehearsals. “We found you don’t respond to things that are not interesting to you. You don’t just wake up because someone is upset about it. So the carer has to enter the world of the person in coma. It was disturbing.”

In some parts of the world – in Bali, for example – trances and comas are cultural rites. People go into trances for personal reasons and for collective ones as well. “Up to now,” says Mindell, “only shamans have been able to leave this reality – to enter altered states through dance, drugs and dreaming – and to return with messages for us all. Now it seems that comatose people are attempting the same sort of shamanistic feat.”

As in Shockheaded Peter, the show relies heavily on a range of visual props, including puppetry. And like Lifegame, it involves dialogue with the audience. One member of the audience who had been in a coma remembered watching people build her coffin. Another remembered her sister entering a coma after an accident. Her mother, she reported, had unwittingly performed Mindell-style bodywork by regularly bathing the comatose girl’s feet. A third remembered speaking to her husband throughout the coma which preceded his death. She was delighted by the show’s suggestion that he might have been having a good time.

For McDermott, the reaction of audiences has been hugely encouraging. “I expected more questioning and hostility – no, not hostility, but I thought that this might rankle with people.” After all, it’s a controversial subject. Mindell argues persuasively that life-support should not be withdrawn from people in a persistent vegetative state, pointing out that definitions of death have changed. It used to be the heartbeat which determined life, but now hearts can be restarted – and the definition may yet change further. He quotes an eminent professor of neurology: “The moment of death is a fiction.”

Thanks to Improbable, it’s also a show.