Looking beyond mental illness to see the person in the intense, affecting The Valley

Photo by Keagan Heathers. Graphic design by Ali Carroll.

 

Don’t Look Down Theatre Company, in support of CAMH, presents an intense, affecting production of Joan McLeod’s The Valley, directed by co-Artistic Director Ryan James and running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace. Inspired by the shocking 2007 tasering death of Robert Dziekanski during his arrest at the Vancouver airport, The Valley looks at the experience of mental health issues; and the assumptions about and reactions to someone living with mental illness, from the perspective of loved ones and law enforcement.

Eighteen-year-old Connor (Daniel Entz) is an intelligent, engaged, aspiring sci-fi writer—that is, until he goes off to Calgary to university. When he returns home to Vancouver for Thanksgiving, he is withdrawn and combative; and his mother Sharon (Nicole Fairbairn) learns that he’s dropped two courses, been absent from another and appears to have an irrational suspicion of his dorm roommate. And now, a young man who was previously excited to go off to university is insisting that he can’t go back. A divorced single mom, Sharon is navigating her own troubles—and her desperate attempts to help and cheer her son only serve to agitate him more, resulting in an increased level of stress and worry for her.

Meanwhile, Vancouver cop Dan (Cedric Martin) is becoming more and more cynical about and dissatisfied with his job. Faced with an ongoing array of people with serious substance and behaviour issues, he finds it hard to feel that his work makes a difference. Feeling the pressures of being a new father, as well as looking after his emotionally fragile wife Janie (Alexa Higgins), a recovering addict, he sucks it all up and carries on, finding refuge in his bicycle. Janie is struggling with post-partum depression and sleep deprivation; and is deeply troubled that she can’t seem to connect with their infant son Zeke. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Dan to understand what she’s going through—and she’s feeling increasingly at her wit’s end.

The worlds of these two intimate family units collide when Connor experiences a psychotic break on public transit and Dan arrives on the scene. Scared and confused, and brandishing what appears to be a weapon—in actual fact, a rolled up bunch of fliers, which he drops at Dan’s command—Connor becomes even more agitated, lashing out while Dan attempts to cuff him, hands behind his back. Dan’s use of force to restrain him escalates, resulting in Connor sustaining a broken jaw. Outraged, Sharon files a complaint and tries to get Dan to see who Connor really is—a talented, intelligent young man and not just a mental illness. When that fails, she suggests a resolution-oriented approach: a healing circle that includes Dan, Janie, Connor and herself. Janie is all for it, but Dan is having none of it.

Lovely, focused work from this cast on the sensitive, timely subject of mental illness. Entz gives us a deep dive into Connor’s tormented psyche, surfacing with a physically and emotionally present performance. We can see Connor’s tightly wound, tortured soul torn between withdrawing in fear from the world, and reaching out for help and connection. Fairbairn gives a heart-wrenching performance as Sharon; dealing with her own emotional upheaval, Sharon’s profound desire to do the best she can for her son comes out in bursts of unsolicited advice and talkative cheerleading, pushing her son further into his own world and making her feel even more helpless.

Martin’s multidimensional performance goes a long way toward making us feel empathy for Dan. Dan is trying his best to be a good cop and a supportive husband, but lack of awareness and misconceptions about mental health and mental illness get in his way—as do his own personal demons, particularly an increasingly dark view of his career in law enforcement. Higgins gives a touching, layered performances as Janie, bringing a sweetness and optimism, as well as a strength that underlies Janie’s vulnerability. Faking it till she makes it only gets Janie so far, and she soon comes face to face with her own troubled past.

Good people with the best of intentions can fall short in their drive to be effective and helpful allies for those living with mental illness. How do we increase awareness—for both the public and law enforcement—and bring the focus onto the people behind the illness, who are struggling and need support? The Valley puts a face on mental illness, reminding us that we’re all grappling with internal conflict. And that compassion, understanding and empathy go a long way to providing healthy, helpful support and making meaningful connections.

With shouts to stage manager/lighting designer Chin Palipane for the cool, atmospheric lighting effects.

The Valley continues in the TPM Backspace until September 23; 7:30 p.m. curtain for evening performances and 2:00 p.m. weekend matinees (Please note: Sun, Sept 16 matinee has been moved to 7:30 p.m.). Book advance tickets online or by calling 416-504-7529.

You can also keep up with Don’t Look Down Theatre Company on Twitter. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

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SummerWorks: Pitching vulnerability in the frank, darkly funny, insightful …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

Graham Isador. Photo by Jillian Welsh.

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves reflect on us? And how do the stories we read shape how we see the world? Pressgang Theatre explores these questions, combining journalism and theatre together as playwright/performer Graham Isador takes us on a journey of personal story pitches to BuzzFeed in …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. Directed by Jiv Parasram, Isador is performing in the Theatre Centre Incubator for SummerWorks.

Staged as a stand-up routine, while Isador’s solo show has elements of a comedy show, it’s a storytelling show—differentiated by a beginning, a middle, an end and a take-away. Having taken the path to writing and publishing, a piece catches the eye of the Reader editor at BuzzFeed; and he’s invited to pitch his stories, with the instruction to mine the vulnerability—for this is a key ingredient of serious writing. What follows is a challenging apprenticeship in journalism; one that is both gruelling and encouraging.

Cycling through various stories from childhood and youth to adulthood, he submits pieces torn directly from his own personal headlines: The worst day of his first job; a heart-wrenching break-up, precipitated by a horrible moment of finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him; looking after his injured mother while his father lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.

Isador is a masterful storyteller, delivering a performance that is frank, darkly funny and deeply moving. There is vulnerability in the directness, coupled with a quirky stand-up comic edge—reeling us in and keeping us at a safe distance as the storytelling takes on a confessional tone. Struggling with depression, he comes upon a chicken/egg problem: Is it these worst moments of his life that are making him depressed—or is it the telling of story after story of the worst moments of his life?

Is it true that serious journalism only includes the stories of struggle, hardship and tragedy—the awful, sad, worst moments of our lives? What do we get out of staying in bad situations? In telling those tales of personal woe? In reading them? The take-away is largely left up to us—some serious food for thought.

…And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next has two more performances at SummerWorks: Aug 17 at 10:00 p.m. and Aug 18 at 9:00 p.m. Get advance tickets online. Last night’s show was packed, so advanced booking advised.

Power, connection & identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill

“A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music.”—The Watah Theatre

The Watah Theatre presents a Double Bill of biomythographies, including an excerpt reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon A Black Boy and the world premiere of Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind, running in the Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Once Upon A Black Boy, written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, opens with a mother singing to her infant son. Rocking him in her arms as she sings, she tells him he is beautiful and loved, enveloping him with encouragement and protection. When he grows into an energetic, self-involved (what teen is not?) 6’ tall 15-year-old, she must call him out on the condition of his room, slacking off on his chores and changing out of his uniform before he comes home from school. Because, now, she is afraid for him. She is afraid that others won’t see a 15-year-old child, but a scary, big Black man—and she’s terrified that assumptions based on fear, prejudice and racism could get him killed.

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d’bi.young anitafrika

Told through spoken word, song and a cast of multiple characters, Once Upon A Black Boy is as much about Black motherhood as it is about raising a Black son—and how Black bodies are treated differently in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Joyful and hopeful, then exasperated and deeply concerned, anitafrika’s performance covers the complex array of experience of a Black mother—longing and hoping for the best, but bracing and preparing for the worst. The mother also fears what may happen when she’s not around, from having to be at work and, even more importantly, if she were to get sick. Her sister has just been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which we see played out when the sister visits the doctor to check out a lump and is instructed to keep an eye on it and return in six months.

Moving, insightful and peppered with playful comic moments—and filled with music and sharply-defined characters—anitafrika’s storytelling is both compelling and entertaining. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.

I Cannot Lose My Mind, written and performed by Najla Nubyanluv and directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, chronicles a Black womxn’s* quest to be rid of depression. Discovering an inexplicable mutual connection with a kind and helpful Black female therapist, the womxn finds she must also put up with the therapist’s questionable colleagues: two white male doctors who are happy to push pills onto their patients, including a hilarious list of possible side effects—but, oh, they have additional pills to take care of those too. Experiencing a dreamscape of shared connections with a group of seven women, some of whom were also being treated for depression—and including the therapist and her sweet, elderly receptionist—the womxn finds a bigger world outside her day-to-day life. Trouble is, the doctors have also discovered these mythological connections and want to harness the womxns’ collective power for themselves.

rsz_najla_nubyanluv_in_i_cannot_lose_my_mind_-_photo_by_enas_satir_4_1
Najla Nubyanluv

Telling the story through movement, song and a cast of characters, Nubyanluv weaves personal experience, dreams and mythology, creating a landscape of magical connections with a larger community as the womxn navigates therapy, medication and health care practitioners who don’t have her best interests in mind. Dressed in a goddess-like white gown, Nubyanluv gives a fluid, playful and mesmerizing performance. Connecting with the audience on a personal level as the story unfolds, she draws us into this world. This is what it’s like to experience depression—and struggle to get better and get your life back as you try to make sense of an often senseless world.

Both of these biomythographies demonstrate how anitafrika and Nubyanluv walk the talk of some of the key principles The Watah Theatre teaches its resident artists: Who are you? How are you? And what is your purpose? Theatre-making as self-discovery: the artist coming to the work as a human being, connecting with their lived experience, and then sharing that discovery as they connect with an audience. Making their lives as the make their art.

These stories also highlight the intersections of oppression, particularly the health care system’s failure to treat women of colour with equal respect and diligence. During the talkback that followed the performance, anitafrika also mentioned the importance of recognizing how we all perpetuate stigma ourselves, and to turn our focus away from how we are oppressed in our daily lives to how we propagate oppression. We need to examine power, not just how it’s exerted upon us, but how we exert our own power on others. Are we using our power for support and allyship—or to oppress and demean?

Power, connection and identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill.

The Watah Theatre Double Bill continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till February 17; advance tickets available online.

*This is The Watah Theatre’s preferred spelling of woman/women.

Magical connections & remarkable storytelling in Sara Farb’s R-E-B-E-C-C-A

rebecca-cropped-no-balloonsB is for “balloon,” “birthday,” “basketball,” “band-aid.” And also “bitch.” It’s also the third letter in “Rebecca,” the shared name of the two characters in playwright/performer Sara Farb’s one-woman play R-E-B-E-C-C-A, directed by Richard Greenblatt, which opened at the Theatre Passe Muraille backspace last night.

The two Rebeccas are based on Farb’s younger sister Rebecca: one real (May, born prematurely and diagnosed as developmentally delayed when she was a small child) and one made up (July, based on Farb’s imaginings about what Rebecca would have been like if she weren’t developmentally delayed). Their lives and stories running parallel, both are celebrating their 18th birthdays – and both end up at the same summer camp (May as a camper and July as a counsellor), where these two Rebeccas connect in a fantastic and surprising way.

May Rebecca is a physically full-grown young woman, her mind frozen in time as a pre-schooler of three or four years old. The play opens with her birthday party, projected silently onscreen upstage, as she blows out her birthday candles and receives a piece of cake with a blue flower on it. The celebration is interrupted as she becomes clearly angry and stomps off camera. She enters and takes up a spot on the stairs – she’s in a time out. She wanted a second piece of cake with the pink flower and became enraged when she was denied. This is where we start to see the world through her eyes and hear her story, told in her own words.

Opposite the stairs in May Rebecca’s world is a step-like rock formation by the water at a summer camp, where July Rebecca broods about her approaching 18th birthday, recording her thoughts and feelings on a video camera. A darkly moody and sardonically funny young woman, this Rebecca takes morbid delight in her own sense of apocalypse. She is convinced that the moment she turns 18 – at exactly 4:14 p.m. – will be her last. Her impending sense of personal doom is clarified by the emerging revelation of her severe depression diagnosis.

Farb does an excellent job winding the story in and out and around the two women, the characters sharply defined and transitions smoothly executed (with movement consultation from Viv Moore). May Rebecca is playful and endearing, bright and present; a lover of Disney princesses, Sesame Street, elephants and basketball – and camp counsellor Dave. Her responses to the world are immediate, deep, largely positive and always dead honest. And her smile glows big and bright. As July Rebecca, Farb is darkly funny and Holden Caulfield-like, her biting sense of humour conjuring up mocking nicknames for the phonies who inhabit her world – except for the developmentally delayed kids, where the monikers become playfully descriptive. Drawing much of her imagery from World of Warcraft characters and themes, she compares them to Troggs – but not in a cruel way, even though she refers to them as “tards.” Like the Troggs, she sees the developmentally delayed kids as doing what they want, when they want – with no apologies and no regrets. She sees beauty in their genuine responses and individuality – and wishes she could be more like them.

As Farb notes, and July Rebecca realizes, “All it takes is something on a microscopic level to define a person’s entire existence.” And when the two Rebeccas see each other, wordlessly connecting across the space between them, there is bright light and love and beauty.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A is a magical, funny and moving piece of storytelling, allowing the audience to see and experience the world from a perspective that is rarely presented onstage – or anywhere. Get yourself out to the TPM backstage space to see this remarkable play.

R-E-B-E-C-C-A runs in the TPM backspace until March 1. You can book tickets online here.