PUBLISHED: 1:39 PM on Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Out of the cocoon and back on stage
'Caterpillar Soup' follows artist Lyena Strelkoff's journey after paralysis
JUNEAU - A paralyzing fall threatened to derail Lyena Strelkoff's career as a performing artist. But the 39-year-old Californian is still acting and teaching, creatively using her experiences to reach others.

Strelkoff's journey to recovery is encapsulated in the theatrical piece "Caterpillar Soup," which will be presented Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center.

The story follows Strelkoff's journey of rehabilitation and regaining hope, with the support of her then-boyfriend and now-husband Dean.

"This is a very, very rich story. There's a lot of humor, there's heartache (and) there's romance," Strelkoff said. "It is at its heart a love story, and that makes it accessible to people. This is not an after-school special on spinal cord injury. This is life at its fullest."

Strelkoff's story begins with a fifteen-foot fall. On a day off, she and her boyfriend were hiking in Malibu when she found a "perfect" climbing tree. A thick branch rotting from beneath snapped and she tumbled backwards, dislocating her back and crushing her spinal cord.

Strelkoff, whose life's work involved acting, movement and dance, was told she would never walk again. During her two-month hospital stay, she started writing to try to make sense of what was happening to do.

photo courtesy of Lyena Strelkoff
  Paralyzed from a fall six years ago, Lyena Strelkoff is now sharing her journey to recovery with audiences in "Caterpillar Soup," in Juneau Sept. 25.
"Caterpillar Soup" evolved from stories Strelkoff wrote in the hospital. She never imagined sharing her stories in front of an audience.

"I was writing as a way of processing what is happening. My life was turned upside down. I was losing the things that were most important to me," Strelkoff said.

One of the hospital staff members envisioned Strelkoff telling these stories in a public environment.

"I thought she was crazy," Strelkoff said. "It didn't occur to me that these stories would have much relevance for (other) people. (But) she planted the seed and I started telling the stories to my friends."

She gave one performance, called "The Road to Recovery," in which she read and told her stories to an audience of 90 people. The afternoon was so powerful for her and the audience that she decided to develop her stories further.

Working with actor and director Paul Link, she shaped her stories into a full-length play, then shared it with a few test audiences.

The original show was supposed to run three weekends. The first run ended up lasting six months. Now, four years later, she is still performing "Caterpillar Soup."

The play takes place over a two-year period from the day Strelkoff fell until the two-year anniversary of the fall. Audiences can walk through her first two years of paralysis alongside her.

The play was first performed a month after the two year anniversary of her fall.

"In the beginning when I was doing it, the stories were current. I was presently in the mindset," Strelkoff said. "Over times my mindset changed, but I opted not to change the play. I opted not to change the arc of the stories. I've had to find new doorways into the material because I just don't feel that way anymore."

After her change in mindset, Strelkoff drew on her training as an actor to play the role of herself and keep it "visceral and real." With each performance, she relates not her current thoughts but accesses feelings of past years.

"During the hour and a half that is the show, there's sort of a community that evolves in the room," Strelkoff said. "The audience relates to the journey even though spinal cord paralysis is completely foreign to them."

After her performances, many audience members are eager to share their own stories with her. Being able to hear this stories and connect with her audience is one of the main reasons Strelkoff has kept performing "Caterpillar Soup" for four years.

"It's very humbling to be let into a community and share these stories," Strelkoff said. "It's a really special experience."

REACH, Inc. is presenting "Caterpillar Soup" Sept. 25 at 7 p.m. at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center, 350 Whittier Street. The performance is sponsored by Spickler/Egan Financial Services and the Rasmuson Foundation. Tickets are $15 and are available at the Canvas at 223 Seward St. For more information, call the Canvas at 586-1750.

For more information about Lyena Strelkoff visit