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