A Fragile Memory

We’ve been receiving many questions from audience members about how we arrived at the portrayal of Angus’s memory loss in our production of Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy.  It has been a collaboration between the playwright (who sculpted the character and his thought processes), the director, the dramaturgeand — of course — Will Kinnear, who has taken on the challenge of playing this enormously difficult role, and who does so with honesty and grace.  We love that our audiences are curious about Angus’s background, and at how we arrived at the choices we made, and we would love to share some of the research and resources we used in rehearsal!

One of the major challenges in The Drawer Boy is how to represent Angus’s memory loss. As written, Michael Healey provides a generous and empathetic portrayal of the character, with a full inner life and clear thought process. In transferring the writing from the page to a living, breathing character, the production team of The Drawer Boy wanted to dive deeper – to gain an understanding of the symptoms and effects of brain trauma, so that we might represent Angus as truthfully as possible. Together, with the help of our dramaturge Kati Sweaney, we researched different kinds of amnesia and brain trauma, in order to fully understand the character and the unique inner-working of his mind.

One of the main cases we studied was a man named K.C., who suffered a traumatic brain injury following a severe motorcycle accident. According to the website on K.C. and his history:

“The motorcycle accident drastically impacted K.C.’s personality and memories. His once thrill seeking-character was changed to a soft spoken and calm person. He is still able to gather his own and other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions, since that part of his brain was unaffected. His humour and sarcasm remain intact, yet he is unable to remember any previous personal memories (referred to as retrograde amnesia) or store new ones. K.C. has no problem recalling that an event has occurred but is unable to associate that event to him. It is as if someone else experienced his memories and just told him about them. Therefore, he has no personal attachments to his past memories. K.C. is no longer able to commit any new type of information to long term memory (referred to as anterograde amnesia) and details of his personal occurrences exist only in the present, vanishing from his reality as soon as he thinks about something else. However, he can learn new information or skills normally, like sorting books but he doesn’t remember actually learning it.”

There are also some fascinating interviews with K.C., which provided us with a helpful frame of reference for understanding someone whose memory loss is in so many ways similar to Angus’s.


Another patient we studied was Clive Wearing, a gifted musician who suffered from a virus, leaving him with both retrograde and anterograde amnesia.  Fascinatingly, Clive exhibits no symptoms at all when he is playing the piano or conducting, which you can see in this video:


Like K.C. and Clive, Angus does not fall along one clear, clinical diagnosis of amnesia, but exhibits symptoms of retrograde amnesia, anterograde amnesia, and repressed memory. He can remember basic tasks such as knitting, running the tractor, baking bread, etc., but cannot maintain a conversation, recognize new faces, or remember events from long in the past. And, although one review mischaracterizes Angus’s injury as having “unlocked Rainman-like abilities with numbers,” both the script and our research suggest that Angus was always intelligent and academically-minded (he had planned to go to university), so his ability to do the accounting on the farm would still be part of his procedural memory.

We are so thrilled that our audiences have been as curious as we were to find out more about Angus, and the cause and symptoms of his memory loss.  Please do not hesitate to contact us of you have more questions, or would like to find out more about our process and research!