The TDF Sweepstakes is open. Enter now!

An online theatre magazine

Read about NYC's best theatre and dance productions and watch video interviews with innovative artists

Translate Page

An MS Diagnosis Becomes a Sci-Fi Lounge Act

Date: Mar 26, 2015
Lisa R. Clair turns her medical condition into a trippy musical performance


For playwright/actor Lisa R.Clair, receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis was an oddly enlightening artistic moment. "I thought, 'At least now I have an ending for my show,'" she deadpans.

Clair's What's YOUR Problem? A Deep Space Lounge Act, which she also stars in, tells two simultaneous stories -- one about the process of her medical diagnosis and one about aliens invading the body of a fictional lounge singer. (It plays through Apr. 4 at Cloud City in Brooklyn.)

Clair began experiencing symptoms two years ago when she was working on Yeah I've Been Searchin', another show she wrote and directed. "It was in the crux of a highly creative moment that everything with my health went crazy," she explains.

At the time, she was imagining that her next show would feature her as a lounge performer singing "sparkling, diva-type songs, with super glitter powers."

Meanwhile, as she went through a series of medical tests, she kept noticing how each experience felt trippier than the last, and she related them to various alien and space movies of her youth. "After my MRI I turned to the technician and said, 'Have you seen 2001 Space Odyssey? That was just like it,'" she recalls. A hearing test reminded her of experimental noise music, while a test for the senses featured floating black, white, and yellow boxes. "Taken out of context I thought, 'That would be a cool video projection,'" Clair says.


In What's YOUR Problem? the audience meets Lady, played by Clair, who is the embodiment of a fabulous lounge singer. Brian McCorkle, whose original music accompanies several old standards, plays Raoul, Lady's piano boy. Everything is flawless until another character announces there's a glitch in the system.

"We see an alien implanted into my ear," says Clair, noting the reference to The Wrath of Kahn. "That felt very appropriate to me, because one of my first symptoms was how I lost hearing in my right ear."

From there, Lady transforms into a space hero and goes back in time, enduring a series of tests like the ones Clair herself went through. Lady also confronts Kahn about planting that alien in her head. "But Kahn just responds, 'That's what I do. I'm driven by a plot that doesn't work in your production.' So there is no 'why,'" Clair says.

But while these cheekily poetic reflections on the nature of sickness are all well and good, the show would be pointless if it left Clair physically depleted. To that end, she has been committed to creating it without endangering her health. "The artistic process almost killed me during my last show, but then when I got my diagnosis, I was so grateful to be an artist and be able to process it this way," she says.

What's YOUR Problem
was created in roughly a year, with small showings that have added up to a complete piece. To keep things productive, Clair has surrounded herself with trusted collaborators like McCorkle and the director Chantal Pavageaux, a long-time friend.

As for blending fictional aliens and her real-life medical story, Clair says "The aliens don't feel so fictional to me. It's actually what it feels like when your body starts going crazy. I feel like I experienced those aliens as a human." But of course imaginative alien elements also provide a much-needed protective layer for a deeply personal show that exposes a difficult, vulnerable experience. Says Clair, "The aliens help me say what I am trying to say."


Eliza Bent
is a Brooklyn-based writer and performer

Photos by Moti Margolin.