Q&A with Paul O’Donnell about his new show Dia-Beat-Es
Through a blend of anthems that capture the experience of Type 1 Diabetes, from Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love to The Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams, performer Paul O’Donnell interweaves popular music tracks, recorded interviews and personal experience in his new rave/show. DJing throughout, Paul makes a party out of his own experience of living with the condition since aged two whilst mixing in recorded conversations with his father and cousin, both who have type 1 diabetes, as well as his mother and his sister. Dia-Beat-Es is an honest account of how in the UK 400,000 residents with type 1 diabetes battle to keep their bodies pumpin’, without the possibility of ever pressing pause.
Can you tell us a bit about the show?
Dia-Beat-Es is a theatrical DJ set, in which I share my lived experience of Type 1 Diabetes, whilst mixing in songs like Sugar Sugar, Bleeding Love and Because I Got High (blood sugars). It’s a disco, it’s a true-life story, it’s the world’s first Type 1 diabetes themed party (probably).
Throughout the show I am live mixing songs in with my own spoken text and the pre-recorded interviews I held with my parents, sister and cousin. My Dad and cousin are both Type 1 Diabetics too, so the impact Type 1 Diabetes has had on our family is significant. This show isn’t doom and gloom, at points it is emotional, but first and foremost it is a celebration of what 400,000 type 1 diabetics, and their families, endure every single day just to keep on livin’.
What would you like audiences to take away from this show?
I hope different audience members will take away different things. For Type 1 diabetics I hope they will see their story represented in an authentic way. For their families they will see their efforts and experiences around the condition appreciated. For friends or family members of Type 1 diabetics who have never quite been able to understand hopefully they will gain a bit of knowledge. And for those who have absolutely no connection to Type 1 diabetes they hopefully will find out about a condition they know little of, whilst having a boogie and listening to some bangin’ tunes.
As a performer, what extra preparation do you have to do for a show that performers without diabetes take for granted?
Check my blood. Make sure my blood sugars run a little bit high to last the 70mins it takes to perform. I have sweets on set with me, as well as an injection, and check my blood in the middle of the show to work out where we’re at. My blood is checked through my phone, so I have to make sure my phone is fully charged. I have to think on behalf of my pancreas.
You only started DJing recently, did you find it difficult, and was it hard to bring such a new skill into a show?
I had a really great mentor in James Hunter who helped me on this journey. Luckily, although I play no instruments, I did start with a bit of an understanding of music and its structures from my childhood dance or musical theatre classes. This helped me grapple beat matching and frequencies.
The hardest thing, and for me the dullest thing, was learning what all the buttons/knobs/sliders on the decks or software did. I spent quite a considerable amount of time understanding what all of their purposes were, but once you’ve got that idea down you can have such fun experimenting with them, seeing how they work together and playing with how they bounce off each other. You can have a lot of fun with DJ-ing and it is a much more creative task than we are lead to think, you are literally reinventing music.
I am led by concepts really, and believe you can build teams around projects to help you achieve new feats. Even feats which are way outside of your current skill set. This show required me learning how to DJ.
You've interweaved popular music tracks into your show, what's your favourite song from the show and why?
The one I think I enjoy performing to the most is Timber by Pitbull ft Kesha. What connection does it have to Type 1 Diabetes I hear you ask, well when it comes to blood sugars “it’s going down, I’m yellin’ Timberrrr”. It’s the song as well which we throw everything at, and I think in a uniquely spectacular way it captures the difficulty and experience of ‘going low’ on the dance floor.
What’s the audience reaction been like on the tour?
I’ve found the audience reaction really quite moving so far. A lot of Type 1 diabetics have came up to my booth and spoke to me after the show, some saying how empowered they felt, others saying “oh I wish I brought my child because they would have absolutely loved this”. At one show a man came up to me, after hearing me talk in the show about Diabetes Burnout, saying “I never really had a word for it before, I’ve another auto-immune disease Lupus, and I feel burnt out from it too, thank you” which tells me that people with experiences of other conditions really get something from the show too.
At one of my latest shows a group of five mothers, all who had Type 1 diabetic children came to the show. Within Dia-Beat-Es I mix in the voice of my mother, sharing how much pressure the condition has put on her in quite candid interviews. The five mothers felt a really strong connection with my mother, and left knowing that they weren’t alone in their struggle.
Dia-Beat-Es is at Camden People’s Theatre 29 March – 1 April https://cptheatre.co.uk/whatson/Dia-Beat-Es and Norfolk and Norwich Festival 18 May