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Avant-garde play supports the development of new clinical tools for eczema

Around 15 million adults in the UK suffer with atopic dermatitis (eczema), a chronic condition that causes skin to become itchy, red, dry and cracked. Along with the physical burden of the condition, it can severely impact mental and social wellbeing. A writer and researcher at Northumbria University has written and directed an experimental play depicting life with eczema that offers a fresh approach to discussing the impact of the disease. Writing workshops with eczema sufferers, held in association with the play, are also serving as a basis for the development of new clinical tools.

Eczema is a common condition that in the UK affects about 1 in 5 children and 1 in 12 adults. This allergic disease causes excessively dry and inflamed skin that can become painful and extremely itchy, affecting sleep and activities such as outdoor sports and swimming. Eczema can also impact relationships, education, work and lead to self-esteem issues, anxiety and depression.


At its most severe, eczema can have a more profound impact on quality of life than chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Although there is no cure for eczema, there are various treatment options that can reduce dry skin and itching, as well as services that can provide psychological support to sufferers and their families.


Exploring the physical, mental and sociological impacts of eczema through theatre is Professor Maria Fusco, a researcher and interdisciplinary writer in the Arts Department at Northumbria University. For her latest work, she has written and directed an experimental play that provides unique insight into the very personal experiences of those living with eczema. The 30-minute black comedy ECZEMA! uses spoken word and music to embody the internal struggles of an eczema sufferer and explore the impact of this chronic condition on everyday life. An eczema sufferer herself, Professor Fusco cleverly created the soundtrack for the play by recording her own scratching through motion capture technology, creating a graphic score from the data and playing it back through a pipe organ.


ECZEMA! makes a valuable contribution to contemporary performance, but its impact goes even further. At its core the play speaks directly to eczema sufferers, giving them a voice and raising awareness about the disease. From a medical point of view, the production offers new ways to discuss and elicit clinical information about the sociological impact of the disease.


Building on the success of ECZEMA!, Professor Fusco is conducting writing workshops with adult eczema sufferers and, with their permission, incorporating their testimonies into each new iteration of the play. Working with consultant dermatologist, Professor Sinead Langan (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine), the writing methods of these workshops are being utilised to develop new clinical tools.  


ECZEMA! premiered at the BBC Wales Symphony Hall on 28 July 2018 as part of the National Theatre Wales’ month-long festival celebrating 70 years of the National Health Service. The performance was recorded and released by Matthew Herbert's Accidental Records on limited edition heavyweight red vinyl. The EP contains the full script of the work.


The play is touring in the UK in 2019. Partners of the project include Professor Langan, Wellcome Trust, South London Gallery, National Theatre Wales and the British Association of Dermatologists.  


For more information about the play, visit Maria Fusco’s vimeo channel and National Theatre Wales website.

Photograph:  Rhodri Meilir performing ECZEMA! at South London Gallery, June 2019. Photography by Sam Nightingale

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