Shining a Light on Mental Illness

There has been much buzz surrounding the topic of mental health on Western University campus the last couple years. More and more students are now speaking out against the apparent lack of adequate counselling services available to them. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, Western’s Senate approved a fall semester reading week to be implemented in October of each school year (http://news.westernu.ca/2017/02/senate-debate-fall-reading-week/), which I believe will greatly reduce the copious amounts of stress experienced by the average university student, hopefully directly improving many students’ mental health.

It is not surprising that an issue such as mental health has made its way to the Western stage, as theatre can be an effective medium to discuss important topics and effect positive change. Every year, Theatre Western (a Western University theatre club) puts on a one-act play festival called Purple Shorts in early February (see http://www.westerngazette.ca/arts/purple-shorts-leaves-audiences-tickled-and-teary-eyed/article_7d5ac322-f66d-11e6-8a5f-cb54c2d0a148.html for a review of the event).

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Purple Shorts Promo Picture

These plays are written, directed, acted, and produced by Western students for Western students. This year I had the privilege of performing in “We’re All Okay”, one of the six plays that made up the festival. The play follows four university students who recently lost a roommate to suicide through a drug overdose. I portrayed Rebecca, the “mother” of the household who comforts and supports her roommates by sharing her experience in losing her mother. On the surface, it is a story of mental illness, but even more so, it is a story of strength, love, hope, and healing, as the roommates lean on and support each other in their grieving, with the ultimate message being “we’ll all be okay.” Unfortunately, both mental illness and suicide are relevant issues at Western, making this one-act play even more important to stage. together

To partake in a play that discusses such an important and pertinent issue to the Western community, and world at large, was nothing short of an honor. I felt a great responsibility to accurately and authentically bring Rebecca to life, and to share her story knowing that most of the audience would be made up of fellow Western students who may themselves be dealing with a mental illness, have lost someone to suicide before, or have lost their mother too soon. This awareness greatly motivated me throughout the entire production process to performance night.

In studying theatre, I became aware of the potential impact theatre has on its spectators, one of the key takeaways being that every individual is unique, holding different political beliefs, personal histories, and cultural viewpoints (Freshwater, 6). This in turn, influences their perception of the play, which was evident to me after my performance in “We’re All Okay”. The responses of audience members varied drastically. Some focused on my portrayal as Rebecca, others on the importance and relevance of mental health initiatives at Western, and some both. I see these differences in experience as a strength of theatre: allowing individuals to take away something unique that they experienced as a collective.

Just as I know I affected some of the individuals who made up the audience, so too did the audience influence my performance. Reflecting on my performance, I found that many of

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“We’re All Okay” – Opening Scene

my tonal and physical choices throughout the play were greatly influenced by the audience. For example, the play opened with Rebecca’s roommate Anna informing the audience of Walker’s death. It was an emotionally “heavy” opening, as much of Anna’s
anger, frustration, and sadness was projected to the audience. After this monologue, Ellie, another roommate, enters the stage in such an extravagant manner as to break the tension, causing the audience to laugh. I was to enter the stage right after her in a natural manner. Sensing the audiences desire for a lighter atmosphere on stage, understandably so after being called to witness an account of death by mental illness just moments ago, I improvised my entrance by incorporating a slight “shimmy” on the way to my seat, which resulted in additional laughter from the audience. In this way, the audience greatly influenced my performance and the conception of Rebecca, helping me to bring her to life and share a story of loss, grieving, strength, and healing through love and connection.

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Work Cited

Freshwater, Helen. Theatre & Audience . New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print. Theatre &.

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My Journey to Destination Theatre

It was about two years ago, during my second year of University, that I caught the itch for theatre. To my surprise, my interest in live-performance included both spectatorship of, and performance in, productions. I started auditioning for stuff at Western University, and it was upon the success of landing my first role as a Dragon in a Purple Shorts play called “Simon the Brave” that certain individuals began referring to me as the living Troy Bolton (from the movie High School Musical). Having grown up as a competitive athlete, eventually playing varsity basketball for Western (hence Troy Bolton), I found that the theatre scene felt very much like foreign territory, a world I was eager to become a part of.

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Me as a Dragon (in a dinosaur onesie) in “Simon the Brave”

By the beginning of third year I was pursuing a minor in Theatre Studies, with a new appreciation for theatre. Recently, I learned how relevant theatre and performance is to our everyday lives. For example, Judith Butler, a philosopher and gender theorist (among other things), discusses in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory” how gender is socially constructed through the enactment of gender roles. Furthermore, it is in performing these roles that we construct our gender identity.

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Judith Butler

Engaging in theatre as both a cast member and an audience member has made me realize that one of the greatest strengths of theatre is its (potential) diversity. The reason why I say “potential” is that quite often this diversity can be halted by populist theatre, otherwise known as mainstream theatre. Jen Harvie’s 2009 book, Theatre & the City, touches upon this point. Regardless, diversity in an of itself is a hot topic nowadays, and I believe that it is starting to be reflected on stages in casting and in storylines. Take, for example, “The Gay Heritage Project”, a production put on by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is an alternative Canadian theatre company whose mission is developing and presenting voices that question sexual and cultural norms. As you may have guessed by the title, “The Gay Heritage Project” examines the rich history behind gay culture, arguably a less frequented, topic presented on stage.

Destination Theatre is part of my journey in acquiring greater knowledge about theatre, by both studying it and immersing myself in one of the world’s leading theatre hubs. I am excited to experience theatre in another part of the world. There is a certain culture formed through the interaction of the city and the theatre productions, which results in a unique theatre community with a distinct feel. Watching a show in Stratford is a widely different experience, than a show in Toronto, or even in London. For example, in Stratford, it is not uncommon to run into actors at Balzac’s, either grabbing a Cup of Joe for breakfast or between matinee and evening performances. For me, this small-town feel carries over to the performances where I would see those friendly “neighbourhood” actors on stage. It fostered a strong sense of community in me, which manifested into a sense of pride and excitement towards the actors and performance, something I have not experienced at a Toronto-based production. I am curious as to the “feel” of the theatre scene in London, England.

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The Old Vic Theatre located in London, England

Travel often results in much self-reflection and greater understanding of oneself, culture, and the world at large. In walking foreign landscapes, meeting new people, and attending cultural events, in this case theatre, I believe we can begin to understand that how we live is but one way of life, but one perspective. The result is a whole lot of self-reflection. I look forward to learning more about theatre, European culture, and myself as we embark on this journey to London, England together.

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Cece Pellegrino is a fourth year student at Western University.