Texas Tech University

A New Partnership: Giving Voice to People with Aphasia

Mark Charney

February 28, 2022

Mark Charney

Remember when, at some point in your education, a high school teacher explained that those two roads that Robert Frost described diverging “in a yellow wood” was ironic, that both roads were potentially valuable, so that one “less traveled by” may not really make “all the difference?”

It's ok if you don't, but sometimes, when opportunities present themselves to our School, I like to frame it as one of those roads that may, indeed, make all the difference.

A few weeks ago, the School of Theatre and Dance was visited for the second time by members of Silk Road Rising, a company in Chicago dedicated to producing playwrights of Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds. One of its founders, Co-Executive Artistic Director, Malik Gillani, had a stroke two years ago, and his journey of recovery from aphasia is inspiring:

Malik visited Lubbock along with Jamil Khoury, his care partner and spouse (who is also the other Co-Executive Artistic Director of Silk Road Rising), to meet again with Dr. Melinda Corwin, who directs the Stroke & Aphasia (STAR) program in Health and Sciences. This summer, both Malik and Jamil will be guests of STAR, not only to witness and participate, but also to offer their wealth of experience. At the same time, they both will visit with WildWind Performance Lab to begin a collaboration with Theatre & Dance that, we hope, will materialize into a theatrical event that documents the struggles experienced by victims of aphasia.

Jamil Khory, like those of us here at TTU, has big hopes for this collaboration:

It is an honor for Silk Road Rising to be partnering with Texas Tech University's Stroke and Aphasia Recovery program and the Talkington College of Visual and Performing Arts.  Silk Road Rising was established to give voice to the voiceless and marginalized.  How fitting that we are now giving voice to people with aphasia.  Malik has spent the greater part of the past 20 years fighting to integrate the stories of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Muslim Americans into the fabric of the American story.  Now we are fighting to help him tell his own story.  With this exciting multi-year collaboration, we hope to create greater awareness of aphasia and aphasia recovery, generate hope for people living with aphasia and for their loved ones, and deepen our knowledge about the relationship between the arts and neuroplasticity, particularly as regards language recovery.

Malik and JamilThe awareness of which Jamil writes is significant. If you don't know what aphasia is, you are not alone: a recent newsletter describes it as “a national disease that no one has ever heard of.” Aphasia is a language disorder that affects the ability to communicate. While it is often caused by strokes in the left side of the brain that control speech and language, it also can occur from a number of brain injuries. There are many forms of aphasia, but they all involve trouble articulating and/or comprehending sentences and, often, even words. Because such struggles with words often mean family members and friends must rely on gestures to express meaning, much communication depends on movement. Our new BFA dance program, then, becomes instrumental in helping us figure out the vocabulary of the onstage event. Those with aphasia often experience isolation, and we hope, through this collaboration, to help find both narrative and aesthetic means to express solutions.

We have some experience working with the STAR Program. Many years ago, two graduate students successfully led workshops for Dr. Corwin's Star program, and, following the leadership of the College—especially the vision of Dr. Kelsie Jackson--we want to strengthen and deepen this collaboration. Students will again work in the Star program, and, during Malik and Jamil's June visit in 2022, we will begin planning for the Marfa Intensive in the summer of 2023, where we will use our time there to create a work that represents in dance, movement, and theatre the journey of those struggling with aphasia.

Dr. Corwin is as excited about this venture as we are: “Performing and visual arts can potentially change brain pathways for the better and aid in recovery—That's exciting! We've assembled a team representing arts, medicine, health, research, creativity, and the lived experience---Oh, the places we'll go!” 

The School has a long history of partnering with those struggling with disabilities. Many years ago, we began working with the Burkhart Center, after learning almost by accident that those on the spectrum can be served by the arts, especially theatre and dance. Our company, BurkTech, began by the Artistic Director of Spectrum Theatre Ensemble in Providence, Rhode Island, Clay Martin, stages theatre/dance events each semester, led by our graduate students and students from the Burkhart Center. It's been a gratifying partnership, one that has contributed massively to the education of our students, and we hope, also broadened the experience of those on the autism spectrum. 

For us in Theatre & Dance, this collaboration represents another experiential education challenge that best makes practical use of each discipline. And, maybe more importantly, it pushes our students to understand the transformational nature of theatre and dance.

Dr. Kelsie Jackson, who is one of the College leaders in this endeavor, best explains why theatre and dance are involved:

The arts—perhaps theater most of all—have consistently represented the desire of humankind to express ourselves in a manner that celebrates our capacity for creativity and thought. Through this partnership, the Talkington College renews its dedication to that endeavor, bridging through creation and performance the divide between the internal and external experiences of persons with aphasia. 

To return to Robert Frost, then, Theatre & Dance is confident that this collaboration represents a road not often taken, certainly one less traveled, and we hope this journey will pave the way for a new understanding not only of aphasia, but also of the myriad ways that art can educate while raising awareness.