Sensory Overload

By Jo French

Artist, Maddy Newman; Photographer: Jo French

Artist, Maddy Newman; Photographer: Jo French

When Deakin University graduate Maddison Newman decided to create a performance to show audiences what it was like to live with the chronic pain she knew the process would not be easy.  But the winner of the Vice-Chancellor's Medal for Recognising Excellence, which honours students who experience hardship while studying, was up for the challenge.

At the end of 2015 Maddy was diagnosed with Centralised Sensitivity, a condition of the nervous system that involves a heightened reaction to touch, sound and other senses. What most of us would consider a slight bump, Maddy would register as intense pain.

“I was coming to terms with that in my own body,” she said. “I started my Honours year thinking what better way to express that part of myself than to explore the senses in theatre?”

In sensory theatre artists create performances that allow the audience the opportunity to touch, taste, smell, hear and see a story as it unfolds around them. But Maddy wanted to take this one step further.

“Because I was going through my own illness, and that was what was inspiring the work at the time, I wanted people to feel that lack of control,” she said. “I thought, what if we take away the traditional part and just make it all about the senses, and explore from there?”

Using lighting, sound, blindfolds and the experiences of touch, taste and smell, Maddy created an installation where the audience could imagine how she felt trapped in her own body.  As the audience stepped barefoot into a darkened room, the floor slipped as images were projected onto Maddy’s body, lying still on a table, giving them a sense of heightened sensitivity.

Dr Rea Dennis, Senior Lecturer in Art and Performance and Honours Course Director at Deakin University, supervised Maddy's creative research project and nominated her for the award. She said that it was Maddy’s “sensitivity and courage that stood out”.

“She is tenacious and ethical, and this leads to a detailed and disciplined approach to making theatre and performance,” said Dr Dennis.

Using lighting, sound, blindfolds and the experiences of touch, taste and smell, Maddy created an installation where the audience could imagine how she felt trapped in her own body. As the audience stepped barefoot into a darkened room, the floor slipped as images were projected onto Maddy’s body, lying still on a table, giving them a sense of heightened sensitivity.

Coming from Ballan in rural Victoria, Maddy chose her university carefully.  “I found that Deakin University was the only one that was performance making - my passion was there – that’s where I wanted to be.”

When she was an undergraduate, Maddy drove from Ballan each day and she soon began to feel lonely and isolated. “Living in a small country town, and going to school in a small city, was restricting, you knew everyone,” she said. “So, coming to a place where you don’t know everyone changes the way you interact socially.

“With the drama course especially, you are exploring yourself and what you can do, and how your imagination works, so there is a lot of personal growth that goes alongside that.”

Maddy took time off after she graduated: “The year off cemented who I was outside of school,” she said.

While deciding to do her Honours, Maddy said Deakin University had the creative scope she craved. “The Honours at Deakin in this particular course was to build a practice, to be active in the community, as opposed to a more academic look where the Masters is very much research and writing,” she said.

Ms Louise Morris is an Associate Lecturer in Art and Performance at Deakin University, and worked with Maddy in 2013. “I've always been so impressed by her resilience, unless she told you, you wouldn't know that she is going through pain and sensory overload,” Ms Morris said. “It's really interesting that she was able to channel those experiences into her art practice and create what she did for her honours piece.”


Jo French is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and journalist, currently studying Professional and Creative Writing and Journalism at Deakin University.

Jo is driven to tell the stories of others, providing them with a platform to have their voices heard and their experiences valued. She enjoys discovering the stories within the community that will encourage and inspire others and strengthen community connections.

Jo writes for the award-winning community newspaper, the Warrandyte Diary.  She has her own monthly column, titled ‘corner of my eye’, where she takes inspiration from the glimpses of things that may go by unnoticed.