Interview with Lorna Nickson Brown, New Creative

"Finding your voice is simply being true to yourself; really listening to yourself and expressing that truth to the world around you"

Interview with Lorna Nickson Brown, New Creative

Please introduce yourself and the audio piece. 

Hello, I’m Lorna and I’m the creator of Butterflies, an audio piece that explores my experience with thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer is a hormonal cancer and its impact, even after cure, can be long-lasting because it affects the body’s regulation of hormones. The title of the play, Butterflies, comes from the description of the thyroid gland as a ‘butterfly’ shaped gland. It's also a common term used to describe that feeling in your belly of anxiety, anticipation or fear. These are some of the feelings I wanted to explore in the piece. Butterflies is an exploration of the complexities of cancer, and my journey to finding my own voice through nearly losing it. 

The show is inspired by the many conversations I have had with other people who, like me, have experienced a thyroid cancer diagnosis. It's a rare cancer and there seems to be little awareness. Life can be complex after such a diagnosis, and for me, making a play was the best way for me to understand and process this and communicate with the world around me. 

What was the creative process behind Butterflies? 

I developed a stage version of Butterflies, with Birmingham Repertory Theatre and my mentor, Susan Lynch. This was a much longer piece which was performed as part of the theatre’s New Writing Foundry season in 2018. I was thrilled to adapt this play into a short radio piece with Rural Media and BBC Arts because I think it’s a great medium to tell this story, and I think so much of this journey can be best told through the intimacy of radio. It was great to work with Paul and Grant at Rural Media and my script editor, Al Smith, to really explore the best way to express these often internalised feelings through the powerful proximity of radio. I loved working with composer, Stella Roberts, to help create these shifts in both physical and mental space through the use of sound. 

How did it feel to put such personal experiences into the piece? 

It was very important to me to make this piece because it's a piece of work which has helped me understand and articulate the feelings surrounding a difficult time in my life. Even though that has made me feel vulnerable at times, I have been so lucky to have an incredible creative team around me to support me in this. Butterflies tells my story but, really, so many people have contributed to the piece. It's a collective consciousness. I feel a responsibility, particularly as an artist who has had cancer, because I can express feelings and be a voice for many experiencing a similar thing. When you realise that the purpose is greater than yourself and your own fears, it’s easy to do. 

How did you decide which parts of your experience to incorporate? 

That’s a good question because feelings about an experience are often fluid and changing. When I wrote the stage version, I was struggling with anxiety and the ending was very much a confrontation with uncertainty. Interestingly, by performing the piece itself, I had a huge epiphany and it was a turning point for how I see my experience with cancer. Today, I feel at peace and accepting of uncertainty and so, the ending of the radio play reflected this shift. It was difficult for me to condense a 60-minute stage play into a 15-minute radio piece and so there was much editing required with the great help of writer, Al Smith. 

In the stage version, I had incorporated several stories from other people, who like me, had experienced thyroid cancer, and I was very reluctant to omit these from the radio piece. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t possible to engage an audience with so many voices in such a short space of time, and so I plan to make another piece dedicated solely to giving voice to the incredible people I have met and who so bravely shared their stories with me. 

Do we need to change the way we talk about cancer? 

Cancer is often a taboo subject. I understand why people are reluctant to talk about it as pretty much everyone is affected by it, whether directly or indirectly and it can bring up so many complicated feelings. For me personally, avoiding something gives it more power. It feeds the fear. When I speak about cancer, it has less control over me. It’s a form of acceptance in a way, but not passivity. It’s really empowering! 

It’s also so hard to know what the ‘right’ thing to say is. Years ago, I remember feeling unable to communicate with my grandfather when he had terminal cancer, because it was just so hard to even say the word. It’s so hard to talk about death. I don’t want to be scared of death. In my opinion, death is a stepping stone; an extension of life and as natural as being born. I want to make work which enables us to face death without fear, and which looks at dying as bravely as I wish to live. Through speaking about cancer, I have made some great friends who have also had the same disease. It’s great that as a result of speaking about our experience with cancer we have been able to create new positive connections. 

Do you feel like you've finally found your voice? 

For me, finding your voice is simply being true to yourself; really listening to yourself and expressing that truth to the world around you. I feel that I do this, more than I have ever done before in my life, but I still have those moments where I catch myself sometimes and ask, am I truly being as honest as I can be with myself? There is always room to improve. My experience of cancer has taught me to make the most of what I can offer the world and to speak up for what I believe in, clearly and with purpose. No matter what I am feeling, including when I’m in an anxious state, which I’m blessed to experience very infrequently these days, I have a constant sense of gratitude and, with that, a feeling of responsibility to make best use of the voice I possess. 

Where can people find you online? 

I’m on Twitter at @LornaNBrown, and I’m on Instagram @lorna_nb 

Butterflies was made with the support of The Butterfly Thyroid Cancer Trust ( a charity dedicated to supporting people affected by thyroid cancers. 

We also reviewed Butterflies, and you can read that review here.

New Creatives is a talent development scheme supported by Arts Council England and BBC Arts, delivered in the Midlands by Rural Media. Check out our New Creatives coverage in the New Creatives Voicebox.

Header Image Credit: Sean Williams


Oluwatayo Adewole

Oluwatayo Adewole Contributor

Hey there! I'm a wordy-type who's into all kinds of stuff, but especially: film, comics, theatre and trying to make the world a better place

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