Aphasia: Meet John Smejka

Taken with Lumia Selfie

John with his wife Paula


John Smejka was Head of Engineering at Anglian Water living in Lincolnshire when a stroke left him with severe aphasia. John has been kind enough to share some of his experience with us to raise awareness of this complex communication and language disorder. 

We spent Christmas Day in Lincoln and Boston hospitals, I had a terrible headache and couldn’t see from my left eye. It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon the stroke hit me and I no longer had use of the right leg and arm and I couldn’t speak any words, not a word. I thought that was how it would be for the rest of my life, unable to work, play the guitar or speak.

“I thought that was how it would be for the rest of my life, unable to work, play the guitar or speak.”

While I was in hospital, I didn’t want many visitors, but my fiancée (Paula) my children and my parents visited. If I could talk, it would have been easier to have visitors. Talking is the key. When Paula visited we did therapy exercises, she pushed me for a ‘walk’ in my wheelchair, or she came on the bed for a TV watching cuddle – some things don’t change! When my parents visited, conversation was impossible, I couldn’t speak at all and they didn’t do anything except visit me, so had nothing to talk about. Eventually I told them they needed to visit me less often.

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John and Paula with family on their wedding day

When I came home from hospital, Paula had moved into my house, with her son (Cameron). Paula and Cameron had to be with me all the time, they helped me with my exercises and we learnt how to communicate together. My relationship with Cameron really started at that time, it is based on mutual interests and silly humour, it has perhaps been easier for Cameron to accept my difficulties as we didn’t know each other so well before my stroke.

It has been harder for some of my children to come to terms with my stroke, especially dealing with aphasia as it hides my feelings, knowledge and stories. The two kids I was closest to before my stroke have found this most difficult, whereas the other two, seem to have adjusted much better, one of them even says he feels closer to me now than he did back then.

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John, busy digging a pond in his garden

My relationship with Paula is still good (she is my wife now!), we used to spend hours talking, now we are quiet more often but she tries to work with me so I can tell her stories, ideas and feelings. It makes Paula really sad when she misses my ‘wise counsel’ at times of difficulty.

My social life has almost disappeared. The aphasia makes it so hard to chat, especially in large groups which is how I used to socialise. I know that my friends miss me and I feel bad that I don’t go out more but it’s just not as much fun anymore – I can’t help that.

This blog was published in association with the Stroke Association. Click here to find out more and donate to support their work.


Wings is running at the Young Vic until 4 Nov. Emily, a fiercely independent aviator and wing walker, suffers a stroke that destroys her sense of reality.

Fragments of her life come together as she struggles to find her voice and her self.

Fable | A story spanning three continents

Three countries 🌍
Three schools 🏫
Three weeks 📆

Three incredible groups of young people in London, Brooklyn & Cape Town worked with our incredible creative team to make Fable, a response to Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope.

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Fable was Written by Luke Barnes, directed by Maddi Kludje and the film was directed and edited by Tristan Shepherd. The story was told in three parts and it explores young people’s perceptions of what it is to be a migrant. Fable was performed by three exceptional groups of children and teenagers in London, Brooklyn and Cape Town.

50 young people, 3 countries exploring their understanding of what it means to be a migrant today. An incredible achievement, a moving experience in such a short space of time. A lot of the young people had never even acted before and they created a whole film in just a few days! I am very proud of them!” – Maddi Kludje

The performers were from six schools, Sacred Heard School and Harris Girls Academy in London, McKinney High Schools and Juan Morel Campos in Brooklyn and Injongo Primary School and Liwa Primary School in Cape Town. You can find out more about the Cape Town schools on Isango Ensemble’s website. 

50 pages of script, over 50 kids and about 18 hours of filming. In many ways, Fable was a mission impossible for a filmmaker but Taking Part’s desire to create something special, their enthusiasm and believe allowed us to make a small miracle.” – Tristan Shepherd

A busy audience of friends and family sit in rows in front of a projector screen ahead of the London Fable sharing in the YV's Maria theatre

Fable sharing in the YV’s Maria theatre

Last week we shared the very first screening with our London casts’ friends and family at the Young Vic which featured this poignant final scene from Part three, filmed in Cape Town with local young people and Isango Ensemble.

Kwame Kwei-Armah announced as Young Vic’s new Artistic Director

The Young Vic is thrilled to announce that Kwame Kwei-Armah will become the new Artistic Director in February 2018.

A photo of Kwame Kwei-Armah taken outside the entrance to Baltimore Centre Stage

Kwame Kwei-Armah will become the new Artistic Director in February 2018

Kwame Kwei-Armah is an award-winning director and playwright and the outgoing Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage where he directed extensively. Directing credits also include New York’s Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Birmingham Repertory Theatre. His production of One Night in Miami at the Donmar Warehouse was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best New Play.

His works as playwright include One Love (Birmingham Rep), Marley, Beneatha’s Place (Baltimore Center Stage), Elmina’s Kitchen, Fix Up, Statement of Regret (National Theatre) and Let There Be Love and Seize the Day (Tricycle Theatre). Kwame was the Chancellor of the University of the Arts London from 2010-15, and in 2012 was awarded an OBE for Services to Drama.

Kwame will succeed David Lan further to the announcement that he would be stepping down in 2018 after 18 years in the role. Kwame will announce his first season of work as Artistic Director in the new year.

Kwame Kwei-Armah says: “To walk into the Young Vic is to come face to face with everything I love about theatre, so I am beyond humbled, if not a little scared. But to lead this magnificent theatre at this time in our nation’s history, after such a visionary as David, excites me beyond words. I can’t wait to get started.”

Patrick McKenna, Chair of the Board, says: “After meeting Kwame the panel was unanimous in its decision to appoint him as the next leader for this remarkable institution. Kwame’s wealth of experience directing, writing and working with the local community in Baltimore and beyond will translate beautifully to his new role leading the work on the Young Vic’s three stages as well as its pioneering outreach and education work in London.”

David Lan, outgoing Artistic Director, says: “The choice the panel has made is inspired. I welcome it wholeheartedly and will do whatever I can to support Kwame in the early days as he finds his own distinctive way to keep the Young Vic one of the great producing theatres of this country and the world.

7 young people head to Zimbabwe with Taking Part | Unified Women

Seven young women from Lambeth and Southwark are headed to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
with YV Taking Part as part of a cultural exchange to create a new show, Unified Women.

The group will be joining 10 women, also aged between 18 – 25, in Bulawayo to create a response to The Suppliant Women. The response will be directed by Sasha Milavic Davies and written by Zimbabwean writer, Noma Damasane.

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Unified Women will explore the issues that arise in The Suppliant Women, with both groups sharing ideas that affect young women, regardless of their background or geographical location over a first week of workshops. In the second week the company will rehearse working with the creative team, including a local designer, before sharing the work with audiences in Bulawayo. The group will also get to explore parts of Zimbabwe and the area around Bulawayo.

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You can follow the group’s trip and get behind the scenes in rehearsals on the YV snapchat 👻 youngvictheatre, the Taking Part twitter account and the YV’s instagram.

The project is supported by the British Council, Zimbabwe and in collaboration with Nhimbe Trust.

An evening with Peter Brook at the Young Vic

The legendary Peter Brook, ‘our greatest living theatre director’ (The Independent), will join the Young Vic’s Artistic Director David Lan to discuss his new book Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning and his remarkable career on Wednesday 13 September.

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Peter Brook by Régis d’Audeville.

In Tip of the Tongue, Peter Brook takes a charming, playful and wise look at topics such as the subtle, telling differences between French and English and the many levels on which we can appreciate the works of Shakespeare. Brook also revisits his seminal concept of the ’empty space’, considering how theatre – and the world – have changed over the course of his life.

After the talk and audience Q&A session, Peter will sign copies of his new book.

Following the book signing, there will be a special screening of The Tightrope (2012). In this revealing behind-the-scenes documentary, director Simon Brook – Peter’s son – takes us into the rehearsal room to witness Brook’s inspiring, powerful and intimate rehearsal process.

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An evening with Peter Brook will take place at 6pm in the Maria studio at the Young Vic Theatre on Wednesday 13 September. Tickets are available to book here. Tip of the Tongue: Reflections on Language and Meaning by Peter Brook is available to buy from nickhernbooks.co.uk

Refugee Week – An interview with Abdi Ali

This week as part of Refugee Week we spoke to Abdi Ali about his experiences of leaving Somalia for Canada, and having to claim asylum in England. Abdi is one of our Two Boroughs members and was a participant in Young Vic Taking Part’s production Go Between. What’s below is his story…

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Abdi Ali. Photo by Jordan Lee 

Tell us what your experience was of coming here?

When I left Africa everything was like a dream. It didn’t hit me until I landed in Gatwick airport, and I was thinking shit what am I going to do.

I don’t think it sank in till I got here and I was 14 and I was at the airport, loads of people passing by, don’t speak the language, and I have to find a certain gate for my aeroplane going to leave from, and obviously I was travelling with this guy and the plan was I wasn’t going to talk to him. He was sitting a couple of seats in front. And I said OK. I will only speak to you if I have to and the plan was we walk off the plane and we walk up to gate 38. And I couldn’t find it, because to me I was just a kid and I just panicked. I couldn’t find it. I didn’t see him.  He just disappeared into the crowds.

And I wandered round the airport from one place to another and before I knew it the immigration got the attention of this young boy wandering around the airport, and they called me and tried to get my attention, but I didn’t speak any English. This was in the 80s there wasn’t a lot of Somalis in the country, so they had to resort to this old British army guy and they had to get him all the way from Brighton and bring him over. And he spoke good Somali but the sort that my granddad would speak. I was kind of struggling as my language is kind of mixed up with slang, he was like proper Somali, and he interpreted for me and he says, “why are you here?” and I said I was going to Canada – and where am I anyway? – as I wasn’t even sure what country I was in. And he said, “You’re in England, and I said “I am going to Canada and this is my passport and this is my ticket.” And the minute I showed the passport they all laughed and said “Well, this isn’t yours.” The guy hadn’t even changed the picture. The plan was he was given money and he could have made efforts. But he didn’t. So the picture in my passport was of a forty something year old man from Tanzania. And immediately immigration said “well this is illegal. We can’t allow you to travel further. “

They said, “You have two choices- we know you have come from Somalia, and we know there are problems there so you can ask for asylum. Or we can send you back…” Staying here wasn’t an option for me. It was a weird scenario because they would bring us back to the airport in the morning and then take us back to a detention centre at night. For 30 days and every morning the same interview. Asking “do you accept your stay here?”, and I was like “no, I don’t know anybody here, I don’t speak the language who is gonna look after me?”  A lot of people who I speak to, they think that as an asylum seeker or refugee you have already calculated what kind of benefits you are going to get. For me it was like – these people are telling me to stay here, and who is going to look after me, and that was my main concern. When I went back to the detention centre there were lots of other people who were staying there for all sorts of different reasons; some getting deported, and there was another Somali guy who could speak English and he interpreted for me, and there were a couple of Jamaican guys who were asking lots of questions – “why are you here?”  And I was like, “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go to Canada and they won’t let me”, and they said “well, will they allow you to stay here?” and I said yes, and they said “Are you crazy ? Just accept it!” They are here trying every trick in the book not to be deported and I was actually refusing to stay in England.  And I said “who is gonna look after me?”, they says, “oh they will look after you and you will get money and housing and stuff.”

After 30 days I went to the last interview and they got really serious – either we deport you back or you sign this document saying that you want to stay here – and I said “OK, I am gonna stay here.” But the night before they [the people at the detention centre] told me not to say I was 14. Which was completely the biggest mistake I made. “Say you are 20. Because obviously the documents you are travelling with are not yours, because if you say you are 14 they will put you in care and you’ll be abused and all kind of things… “ So they had given me the wrong information. So I went there the next day and said I am 20. They looked at me. And the whole panel didn’t believe me, but because they were stuck with me for 30 days and they just wanted to get rid of me. So they were just like OK.

They gave me this ELR letter and an address of a hostel in Wembley, and three pounds, and a travel card and that was it. And got me out of Gatwick airport and showed me the train and were like – bye! And I am like how am I meant to work out where to go? So it wasn’t just me there was a whole group of us and a couple of them spoke English. But at that time the Somalis were coming here because the civil war was quite raw, and there was that kind of division, and I come from a very minority clan so I find myself … and the ones I can identify with abandon me because I am from the wrong clan and I find myself alone in London and couldn’t find the hostel.

So I slept around Victoria for two nights, one morning I just came up with this idea. I was like, well, I speak five African languages, I am bound to find someone I can communicate with. So I was standing outside Victoria station and any black person, I would just throw words any language. Some were looking at me just passing not understanding what I was talking about. Some were thinking I was mad. And then there was this particular woman who responded and I was like “Fantastic, you have got to take me to this hostel”, and it was like 8am in the morning, and she said “No, I have to go to work, and Wembley is like miles away”, and I said “I don’t care, you speak my language and I have been speaking rough for two nights and you have got to take me to this hostel.” She said “I am going to work, and if you can wait outside I can take you this evening”, and she thought I would disappear after about an hour, but I just camped out outside her work and just sat there. She came out for her lunch break and I was still sitting there – she bought me a sandwich, and then at about 6/7pm she came out and took me to Wembley. And went to this hostel and the rest is history.

I stayed in the hostel and got into a bit of trouble, basically because when you go to a hostel environment and you are quite naive and don’t speak the language. I was taken advantage of by a certain group of people there – getting me involved in criminal activities which I wasn’t happy with.

How did you meet your wife?

I met her in the African Centre watching a band, and I remember, I was at a crossroads in about 1996. I came out of prison. I was confused. Did not want to stay here any more. My life hadn’t been great since I came here, and I didn’t want to go back to East London and I was watching this band – a Congolese band, and Lucy was there with her friend, and there was a group of guys who were like really harassing them and all over them, and I was somehow finding the whole thing amusing – I don’t know why. And I was just thinking how are they going to get out of this as there are five guys just being really blokey, trying to push it, and then Lucy came over and sat next to me and was like “do you have a lighter?” And I said “Are you a student ?” “Why are you asking me that?” And I said “well, typical student, they don’t have cigarette or they don’t have a lighter – one or the other.” And then we got talking and then we became friends.

We have been together for 18 years. That was the turning point, as well as living in a squat, because when I came out of prison I was living in a squat. They sent me to a hostel, and the hostel where I was going was with people who were involved in crime that I knew, and I knew if I went back there I would go back to drugs, so I met a group of squatters. They had this house. I used to see them in the park and we used to play football and talk, and one of the guys said, “I live in a big squat . I see your situation. We have strict rules there – if you bring someone into this community you have to talk to everybody, and also you have to respect other people’s property and stuff like that” – and I was like “yeah, that’s fine.” And I moved in with them and I think my life changed from that point, meeting Lucy and having a family.

But I think the first five years were very difficult, and I also hated my dad and spent a lot of time feeling angry, because to me leaving Somalia wasn’t my choice, and personally that’s why my asylum was confused, was that you have to fit into a category of five. And I didn’t fit into any of them. Because to me, when they ask… “why are you here?”  “My dad sent me.” “Why did your dad send you?” “Because he didn’t want me to get involved in the madness”. That doesn’t fit the box….. I was sent against my wish. I never saw anybody killed. My dad had this foresight. My dad is an avid news listener he had his ears open, he knows what’s happening. So he knew Somalia was going to kick right off. And he sold everything he owned and sent us away.

But I didn’t see it that way. I saw that he had just took the easy life and got rid of me.  And also sent me to a country where I don’t understand the language or the culture so it wasn’t easy. So I just had to go and make peace in 1995, to go and see him and confront him and ask him why he did it, And he said, “I saved your life”.  But to me it was like he ruined my life. He sent me to a place where I have been to prison. I have been to madness… It’s like countless….  have had suicidal thoughts. All kinds of stuff. Because it’s not easy to integrate. Because you are told to assimilate from the people and community you live around. But the community I lived around at that particular time where people who were involved in a lot of mad stuff, and I didn’t have any other choice. And I kind of hated it, but there was nowhere to run to and I came out stronger.

I can see that now, becoming a dad, I can see what my dad did, but I never thought it was very high morally, and I kind of hated him for many years after, and wanted to make him feel guilty – you just wanted an easy life getting rid of us- but I saw it from his perspective, he knew the country was going downhill. You do try to save your children, and so he saved the youngest two. He kept the oldest which made me even more angry- I was thinking I am the youngest you should have kept me. There’s one thing that my dad told me which I still disagree with him about, even though he is kind of adamant.  He said every parent knows his children, and he said “your eldest brother, he never would have survived like you would have” and I thought, how do you know, how can you tell that. And he says, because I know my children- he needs more support. So that’s the reason he gave, but I just don’t buy it. But I think he’s my oldest brother how can he be weaker than me. So I kind of resented that.

With the British passport, I was kind of entitled to it in 1992 and never applied for it . I think in a way I kind of self-sabotaged myself, because to me I never accepted this journey. I didn’t want to be here, and when I tried to explain to people, some people say how ungrateful – and you know I am not ungrateful. To me, it was a journey that was planned for me, it wasn’t something I had planned myself, and I didn’t come here to get a British passport. And a lot of people say to me, your wife is British, your children are British, why are you not British? But it’s up here [points at forehead]. And also I have this fear….what if I change my nationality, and then Somalia becomes better, and they say well, we don’t want you. And I always had this idea that I would go home. And I still have that somewhere, and it’s getting to a point when I only realise when I go there how I have changed. I have this romantic idea one day I will go and live there, but when I go there I find I am used to systems, and things, and the bus coming when to supposed to, and I get irritated about things and people say “oh relax Abdi, what’s wrong with you” and I say no you shouldn’t relax. Things should work. And I think people there are more relaxed. It’s not as urgent and there’s no rush to go anywhere.

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Abdi Ali in Go Between at the Young Vic. Photo by Jordan Lee. 

How did you learn English? Just from the people around you?

I have never been to school. The only formal education I have had is only about 2 or 3 years in my entire life. I have learned it all myself. When I lived in the squat there were a lot of clever people in there, and they helped me a lot and taught me how to… and you can tell by the fact the way I write and the way I speak are very different. And a lot of people when I talk to them are like “what university did you go to” and I say I never even went to college let alone university. Because I have been here 27 years you know, and you know I think what helped me was because I travelled most of my life, and I like spoke different languages, so it’s easy to learn languages.

And what made you take part in Go Between?

I was working at St Mungo’s and I met John, and he told me he was doing this project, and he thought I might enjoy it so that’s why I came– and I have always liked theatre. When I worked for Nacro, we used to get a lot of tickets from this small theatre in Shepherds Bush, The Bush, and we used to go there with some of the young people I used to work with and I kind of enjoyed it, I really enjoyed it. I want to do more – I think it helped me in terms of my confidence and stuff like that. It’s good, I enjoyed it.

How did you find telling some of your story on stage?

I am constantly telling people. I never stop talking about it. My missus tells me Abdi, we have had enough of your stories. Let’s talk about something else.

And yeah it’s not… in a way it’s therapeutic to talk about it and get it out.

Refugee Week runs 19 – 25 June 2017. Find out more about the events going on in your neighbourhood. #OurSharedFuture

 

David Lan to step down after leading the YV for 17 years

Today we announce that our artistic director David Lan will step down after leading the company for almost two decades.

David Lan stands arm crossed, face deep in concentration in rehearsals for Why It's All Kicking Off

David Lan in rehearsals for Why It’s All Kicking Off. Photo by Leon Puplett.

David was appointed in 2000.  Over the 17 years of his tenure, the Young Vic’s ambitious and adventurous work has reached millions of people on The Cut and around the world.

David spearheaded the 2006 redevelopment of the building you know today featuring our three spaces, the Main House, the Maria and the Clare. Designed by architects Haworth Tompkins, we were named RIBA London Building of the Year, were short-listed for the Sterling Prize and won many design and industry awards.

The last decade has been the most successful in our company’s history.  David has consistently produced pioneering shows, nurtured the careers of younger theatremakers and won acclaim from critics and audiences across the globe. Through David’s vision the scope of Young Vic productions has widened to include opera, music theatre, dance and short films.

Many Young Vic productions have gone on to great success in the West End, on Broadway and in other theatres round the world. Since winning an Olivier Award for the entire 2003 season, the Young Vic has won every major London and New York theatre award, several many times over.

David will continue as artistic director and CEO until a new artistic director is appointed towards the end of this year and will continue to take responsibility for the 2017/18 season, his last at the Young Vic, which will be announced next month.

Lucy Woollatt will continue to lead the company as executive director as she has done for the last 7 years.

David Lan said: “There is never an easy time to slip away but I wanted to leave at a time of our greatest strength and success. The Young Vic is now admired and emulated internationally as well as loved by our audience in our local communities of Lambeth and Southwark, in London and across the UK.  It’s the right moment for it to set off on a new journey and a new adventure.”

Lucy Woollatt said: “We will greatly miss David’s passion, vision and leadership. He has transformed this company into a world-class destination for artists and audiences from around the world. His tireless dedication has set us up for success in the coming years, and we look forward to the next exciting chapter of the Young Vic’s story.”

Chair of the YV Board, Patrick McKenna, said:

“David has made such a big contribution to the Young Vic success story that it’s hard to do justice to his transformative leadership.  The fact that the Young Vic is currently one of the most successful independent producing theatres in the world is significantly down to David’s ability to attract the very best talent in world theatre to work here.”