SummerWorks: Forgotten women’s voices emerge from the asylum in the remarkable, haunting Audible Songs from Rockwood

Simone Schmidt. Photo by Jeff Bierk.

 

Fiver brings a remarkable piece of musical storytelling to the stage with Audible Songs from Rockwood, written by Simone Schmidt, created by Schmidt, Shannon Lea Doyle and Frank Cox-O’Connell, and directed by Cox-O’Connell—running in the Franco Boni Theatre at The Theatre Centre. Based on the album of the same name, Schmidt has brought to life the voices of 10 women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881, taking us on a music accompanied history tour of these women’s lives and experiences at Rockwood—while drawing on issues of colonialism, patriarchy and mental health.

Staged as a piece of solo storytelling theatre, Schmidt shares her inspiration and research—of Rockwood and its inmates, and of Upper Canada law and general history of the time—in between songs, as she draws parallels between colonialism, and the system of white Protestant patriarchy that ruled the land and made property of wives and daughters. Inspired by the experiences of 10 women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane, and incorporating two years of research from the case files and ledgers of the facility, Schmidt has created a series of song portraits. Put away by fathers, husbands or the authorities for out of wedlock sexual activity and being “man-obsessed”, melancholia, paranoia over land theft or spousal infidelity, or going incognito (one woman fabricated a life under an assumed name as a single woman from down south, when she was married to a local man), these women were subject to harsh conditions, initially housed in the stables of the former estate as the facility was under construction to house the overflow of mentally ill inmates from Kingston Penitentiary. Silenced and forgotten, some were left there for years after they were deemed fit to return home, their families inquiring about them but not bothering to make the journey to take them back.

Inmates were confined, forced into silence, and subjected to hard labour and cruel punishments for breaking the rules. Lack of funding for mental health shut down plans for more advanced, humane treatment at the facility; moral treatment, based on a Quaker model, whereby patients would have freedom to move about, and be given useful tasks to perform around the facility, like cleaning, cooking or gardening. Lack of funds also meant the facility had insufficient heating in winter, forcing inmates to huddle together for warmth as the contents of their chamber pots froze.

Haunting and mournful, lyrical yet matter of fact, the Appalachian folk-inspired music captures the essence of women whose lives were forever changed; silenced and policed in a harsh penal/mental health system—the stories in the facility documents were essentially told by the male doctors and police officers involved with each case. Schmidt’s vocals are earthy, deep and soulful; accompanied by Laura Bates on fiddle and Carlie Howell on double bass, in addition to back-up vocals/harmonies. Schmidt is well-aware of the possible issue of appropriation of voice here; and she wondered out loud if it’s right for her to tell these stories that aren’t really hers to tell. But if not for her songs—developed through respectful and painstaking research—who would be telling the stories of these troubled, silenced and forgotten women?

The “Audible” in the title may seem redundant, but Audible Songs from Rockwood are the songs of the hearts, souls and minds of women who otherwise would have had no voice.

Audible Songs from Rockwood continues, with three more performances, in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre until August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office.

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Toronto Fringe: Reaching back & out to overcome loneliness in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House

Tracey Erin Smith. Set and lighting design by Steve Lucas. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

There’s nothing like a family dinner to bring out the best and the worst in us; and maybe even an insight or two on the nature of loneliness. SOULO Theatre founder/A.D. Tracey Erin Smith takes us on her deepest, most personal storytelling journey yet in the entertaining, heart-wrenching The Big House, directed by and co-created with Sarah Garton Stanley; running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace.

Set during a Passover Seder, Smith has invited her family to her small apartment as she  seeks a way to overcome loneliness during the holiday. A fraught family history and long-held resentments burst out around the dinner table. And then, branching out from this gathering, memories from childhood and the recent past: her father’s incarceration when she was seven, and a unique volunteer experience at California’s Kern Valley maximum security men’s prison in 2018, where she provided feedback on inmates’ ideas for starting up their own business after they get out. Beyond being a common colloquialism for jail, “big house” is also the large Forest Hill home her mother was forced to downsize from with two small children after Smith’s father went to jail. Forced confinement and forced exodus—both huge, life-changing events.

Believing that everyone has a story to tell and making a safe space for that to happen, Smith walks the talk as she dives deep into the messy, wonderful place that is the human soul to discover what hidden gems of wisdom she may find there. Smart, funny and insightful as she shifts from character to character, her performance is vulnerable, edgy and full of chutzpah—delivered with heart, charisma and even a song or two as she takes us along to witness these unfolding moments along the road to realization and release. A gentle storyteller even at the roughest of times, Smith takes us by the hand even as she takes her seven-year-old self by the hand.

While it’s possible to find contentment in being alone, there’s also the hesitant outreach of loneliness in a crowd. We need to be able to tell the difference. And common ground and genuine connection—as well as love and forgiveness—can be found in unexpected places. We just need to be brave enough to go there.

The Big House continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until July 14; check out the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended; Smith is a popular performer—and the house was packed at last night’s opening.

In the meantime, give a listen to this Classical FM 96.3 interview with Smith on Oasis, hosted by Mark Wigmore.