Taste becomes Shape and Life becomes Art

Taste becomes Shape and Life becomes Art

James Wannerton, President of the UK Synaesthesia Association shares his thoughts on the play, 

“The Possibility of Colour” with its taste-synesthete character, Joseph

James with Maike Preissing at Innsbruck for the 1 year anniversary of Let’s Talk Synesthesia.
A person standing in front of a map

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Map of the London Tube 

Lexical Gustatory synaesthesia has never been the easiest of traits to articulate to a wider audience. Playwright Pete Carruthers has managed to successfully achieve this by creating a character who captures the multilayered complexities of the lived experience of having synaes– -James Wannerton

James Wannerton is interviewed by Patricia Lynne Duffy

PLD: You are President of the UK Synaesthesia Association and a well-known word-taste synesthete.  Your whimsical artwork, “Taste Map of the London Tube” (a map that shows what tastes the different station names evoke for you) has been displayed in synesthetic art exhibitions around the world.  What was it like for you to see a “taste-synesthete character” brought to the stage in Pete Carruthers’ play, The Possibility of Colour?  Did you identify with the character Joseph, an architect who experiences word-taste and taste-shape synesthesia?

JW: I can identify totally with Joseph, which is unsurprising given that Pete gave me the honour of including my own personal experiences within the script.   I can remember reading through the script during the character development phase and being very impressed with the attention to detail.  And with the quality and direction of the acting of course!

Watching Joseph’s character being brought to life on stage for the first time was a unique and proud moment for me.  Lexical Gustatory synaesthesia has never been the easiest of traits to articulate to a wider audience and Pete has managed to successfully achieve it by creating a character who captures the multi-layered complexities of the lived in experience of having synaesthesia.   

PLD: What was your involvement with the play? How did you and playwright Pete Carruthers’ meet? 

JW: Pete first contacted me in late 2015, inviting me to attend rehearsal readings of a play he had been working on and developing for many years.  I was living in Germany at the time, so I unfortunately wasn’t able to attend but very soon after that Pete and I began speaking on a regular basis. As I discovered more and more about Pete and the history of his play, I found his vision  inspirational, and from then on, I was hooked.  As our conversations developed, he offered me the chance to become a part of his formidable script development team, helping to develop and portray Joseph’s character as accurately as possible.  I have also appeared as a guest in some of his excellent post-show Q&A sessions at theatres across the UK. 

PLD: When you saw the play, what was the audience reaction?  Were there people in the audience who identify as neurodivergent?

JW: The reaction has been tremendous. I’ve attended a number of performances, and one consistent standout is the audience staying on for the post show Q&A sessions — instead of rushing off to the bar. The subject and content of the play certainly fuelled a lot of post-show debate both in and outside the theatre.  I heard more than a few people saying things like “That’s how I see and experience the world, I never realised I might be different”. 

PLD: The play presents a larger social issue of a society headed toward increasing standardisation of human thought and behaviour. Characters consider a “technological solution” for “smoothing out” any unusual or neurodivergent traits in the interest of better “fitting in” and achieving greater social harmony. Are we, in real life, heading toward a society of greater standardisation where individual uniqueness and creativity are under threat?  

JW: When I read the script for the first time my initial thought was that it was referring to a dark, dystopian vision of the future.  But it soon became clear it reflected contemporary issues.

I personally think we are already well on the way to standardising our society. Whether the reasons are financial or otherwise, I’ve seen a growing trend towards getting people “through the door” as quickly as possible and the easiest way to do that is to offer up instant solutions.  How many times have you seen someone walk out of a doctor’s surgery with a shopping bag full of pills?

The use of AI within healthcare is also on the rise – we can now obtain diagnoses via the internet with hardly any human intervention.  This reality that is truly frightening. 

The Possibility of Colour reflects the struggles and triumphs of the neurodiverse and accurately represents their personal perception of their immediate surroundings, including the pressure to conform.

PLD: It is interesting to observe that—just when human society is developing technological tools to modify human traits and behaviour — there is, in parallel,  a “neurodiversity movement” with neurodivergent persons asserting their unique identities. Might this movement and the artworks it spawns (such as  The Possibility of Colour)– offer some hope for keeping humanity quirkily diverse?

JW: It is my opinion we are all on a spectrum, something that has been brushed over in the pursuit of conformity and more scarily, to obtain a degree of control. What The Possibility of Colour can offer is a voice for those who desire one.

PLD: Is there anything else you would like to say about Pete Carruthers’ play, The Possibility of Colour?

JW: I think Pete’s play does a very good job of educating and facilitating increased understanding of what it is like to be neurodivergent.  The use of theatre is a very effective way of disseminating information and increasing awareness.

The Possibility of Colour covers many relevant and topical issues such as mental health and examines the perception, labelling and one-size-fits-all treatment of the neurodiverse. It also asks the valid questions “What is reality? What is normal?”  Plus, it highlights the need for change within the present system. The play poses questions in a way that challenges the experts in their respective fields. 

In my opinion, The Possibility of Colour is a must-see for anyone connected to mental healthcare as well as anyone who loves theatre.

For more information about the UK Synaesthesia Association:

Patricia Lynne Duffy is the author of the now classic, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: how synesthetes color their worlds, the first book by a synesthete about synesthesia. An audio version of the book with research updates, music by synesthete-composers, and an “Afterword” is recently out.   Available from Audible She also contributed a chapter, “Synesthesia and Literature” to the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia.  

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