A Caregiver’s Perspective

RACHEL SMITH headshot cropped for blogRachel Smith has been a part of our mental health project since the project first launched. Rachel is a theatre artist currently based in Winnipeg. She is also a caregiver to her father, Morgan.

When my Dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease my mind flooded with fears of the future. I wept at the idea of what was to come” said Rachel, “but then I realized that I could choose to dread what might happen or I could appreciate my Dad while he is still here.”

Rachel initially provided input to the project as a caregiver through interviews. She then became part of the community workshop series, helping us to present the script and gather feedback. We are very excited that Rachel will now be working as an actor in the workshop sessions and for the public staged readings of Breaking Through.

I think it is very important to talk about mental health. There is still a stigma around it and I don’t really understand why.”

The caregiver’s perspective is a powerful one. Caregivers face incredible demands, taking on the emotional and physical duties of caring for a loved one, providing support to family members all while trying to meet the demands of their own life and maintain their own emotional health. In addition, Rachel has had to deal with the effects of stigma and lack of understanding surrounding Morgan’s mental illness.

“I found there have been a lot of assumptions made, especially in the beginning. My Mom and I experienced accusations and blame placed for not doing something about it sooner. That somehow we should have been able to prevent it from happening or we should be able to stop it or do something about it. That somehow the difficulties we were experiencing were our own fault”, explained Rachel, “For myself, I found family suddenly coming to me to talk about what was happening almost like they were keeping it a secret from my parents.”

Rachel strongly believes in the value of human understanding surrounding mental health issues.

“One of my more amazing experiences was when there was no stigma, but an understanding. I described to a friend what I was going through in a lot of detail because he is a good friend who I have not seen in a while. He sat and listened, asked questions and then he began to cry. He completely empathized with me for what my Mom and I have been going through and gave me a big hug” said Rachel.  “I cannot help but think how wonderful it would be for others to experience that kind of empathy. For someone to say to them ‘I understand’ and give them a big hug.”

That’s why she is most excited to see how the audiences at staged readings of Breaking Through will respond to the ideas brought forward in the script.

“I feel that a project like Breaking Through is a great way to start the conversation. It is a way of communicating an understanding about what many people experience and why it is important to listen to them instead of making assumptions. It is also a way of telling people who are affected by mental illness in one way or another that they are not alone.

When we refuse to stigmatize people with mental issues we are able to see them for who they are.

“I think I most admire my Dad for his eagerness to help others and his gratitude for those who help him”, said Rachel, “when I think of my Dad I do not want to think of a disease; I want to think of who he is and how strong he is to get out of bed every morning with a smile on his face, ready to meet the challenges ahead.

You can read more about Rachel’s experience here and find resources for caregivers here.

Support Breaking Through by attending and adding your voice at the staged readings from May 22-28.

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Grateful for this Chaos

Andrew Lizotte blog

Photo by April Plett

Do mental health and comedy go together? As we have been focusing on mental health for our next project, Breaking Through, we thought it would be important to explore the role of comedy. Andrew Lizotte is a Winnipeg-based artist, and like many of us, he is a jack of all trades; playwright, performer, dramaturge, comedian, and teacher. Last year Andrew was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. Almost immediately Andrew did something that many people affected by mental health issues are never able to do; he went public.

 

“I went to the doctor and then an anxiety clinic. Wackiness ensued both times. I couldn’t not comment on it, because at the heart of things I’m a comedian”, said Andrew.

Like most comedians, Andrew often posts jokes and quips on social media. He had no idea that a post was about to change his life significantly.

“I made a harmless Facebook post about the irony of being left alone at the anxiety clinic and my life exploded”, he exclaimed “the outpouring of support was overwhelming.”

Exploring life is what artists do. But for artists who live with mental health issues, that can entail being incredibly public about something that you are still coming to terms with for yourself.

“I think whether you want to or not, you end up in your own work, and the more you can do that the better”, said Lizotte. “Audiences always want to feel like they shared a genuine moment.  That said, if this hadn’t happened to me so abruptly it would have been years of me just sharing hints of self.”

When it comes to something as stigmatized as mental health, the process of going public can be stressful;  at times it can be empowering, at other times discouraging. So many people keep their mental health issues a secret, even from friends and family, because the stigma surrounding mental health is still so pervasive.

“I wanted to ignore it. I was afraid of someone telling me I was crazy”, said Andrew. “Mental illness is a lot like cancer was in the 50s. You don’t talk about it and then you go off  and maybe die. There is a huge amount of stigma and shame behind it.”

Andrew Lizotte blog2

Photo by Leif Norman

Andrew remembers things happening quickly. In the early stages of coming to terms with his diagnosis, Andrew was already talking about it on stage in front of hundreds of others. “Suddenly I was doing a mood disorder gala at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival”, said Andrew, “suddenly I was playing a fundraiser at the Pantages Playhouse, suddenly I was doing speaking engagements at mental health clinics.”

Although being public about his mental health issues was overwhelming at times, Andrew believes that is has led him to have many conversations that we he would not otherwise have had.

“Oddly enough I was forced to do the healthy thing against my will and talk about my emotions” said Andrew. “It got me up in front of the best audiences of my life. Audiences that knew what I was going through and let me get as honest as I wanted. Now my voice as a writer/ performer has never been more clear and natural. I’m having the best shows of my life.”

Andrew is confident that he has benefited from speaking out, “To be frank I think I went through years of therapy in a matter of months.” But Andrew still worries about the consequences of being stigmatized.

In an upcoming documentary for the CBC Andrew will be featured alongside other creative people living with mental health issues. Although Andrew is proud to be a part of this project, he still has reservations when it comes to being so public with his mental health issues. “This documentary caught me in some pretty vulnerable moments. There were times I was in a really bad head space. So naturally I’m worried people will think that’s the real me. When the truth of me is much closer to right this moment.”

The arts are a forefront for discussing stigmatized issues that we are hungry but not always able to discuss with one another. Socially, we are in a place where we are starting to encourage people to speak up about mental health. It’s crucial that while we encourage people to speak up we also deconstruct the stigmas that make it difficult for them to do so.

“I’m very worried about how people will treat me after [the documentary] comes out” said Andrew. “At the same time I don’t deny that it’s all real moments that people may need to see to get a better understanding of mental illness.”

Andrew shared a list of some of the other things that have helped him through his experience from diagnosis to present date.

  • The Canadian Mental Health Association. I got right in to talk to someone when I needed it. Go now.
  • Growing a beard for the first time. A doctor told me to do it for at least a month. It looks terrible, but it teaches you patience, and I went outside feeling vulnerable and nothing bad happened.
  • Taking everything I’ve learned from performing improv for years and making me apply it to my off stage life.
  • A friend got me hooked on Buddhist meditation.
  • Thank you letters from strangers who saw me speak at a clinic.
  • Teaching kids. Most of my journey has been learning how to be as present as possible, and you have to be 100% focused with kids. They demand attention. Your problems and worries are automatically the least important thing in the room and it’s amazing. Also, talking to kids with the same problems I have, has taught me to be kinder to myself.
  • One of those kids told me that she likes to make silly faces in a mirror till she feels better. So now it’s the first thing I do every day.

You can catch Andrew Lizotte performing comedy at Wee Johnny’s on April 29.

Breaking The Silence

What if we got it wrong? What if we left an important story out? What if it’s a big mess. What if they hate it? Unveiling a brand new draft and opening it up to audience feedback is both exhilarating and nerve-wracking!—especially when that audience is as invested in the stories as our youth audience at Rainbow Resource Centre on Monday night.

Fefu (2)

Nan Fewchuk in our production of Fefu and Her Friends

“This is very important to them”, said Nan Fewchuck, who has been working with us since the beginning stages of “Breaking Through”.

 

In a project that began a year ago, Sarasvàti artists met with community groups and heard from almost 400 individuals wanting to share their experiences with mental health. We found these workshops to be an incredibly inspiring experience. People wanted to talk about mental health. So many people approached us, eager to share their story. We were blown away by the youth at the Rainbow Resource Centre drop-in. They were so generous in sharing their experiences, that we wanted to bring the draft back to them so we could incorporate their feedback before the play script makes a public debut this May.

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Cairn Moore and Hope McIntyre launching their last co-written project “Jail Baby”

“I wish I had three more hours to talk to them”, said Cairn Moore, who has been weaving hundreds of stories into this script with co-writer Hope McIntyre. “It is so helpful to have this opportunity. They are so young and they have a lot of life experience—they give us some of the most helpful comments”

 

The youth at Rainbow Resource Centre were eager to share amazing insights when we finished the reading.  “They are clearly celebrating the fact that this is being done”, said Nan, “we can see what we’ve touched on, and what we need to go further with.”

“Breaking Through” explores challenges for those with a mental health diagnosis, while also exploring the reality that everyone has mental health. How can we support each other and increase compassion? The play follows five characters as their stories weave in and out to depict experiences with the system, community response, internal struggles and ultimately the desire for understanding.

We are so excited to share this script with the public! Join us at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film from May 24-27 at 7 pm, and May 22 & 28 at 3 pm. On May 27th Breaking Through will be followed by a performance with Red Threads Playback Theatre where the audience can tell of their own experiences with mental health and see them improvisationally “played back.” We invite you to add your voices to this valuable process.
Mental Health is everyone’s health.

MHP poster draft3Visit www.sarasvati.ca for more information, or to book tickets!

And if you didn’t hear the news we were honoured that our Artistic Director, Hope McIntyre, won the Winnipeg Foundation’s Fast Pitch event on April 7th. The grand prize will provided funding for the high school adaptation of Breaking Through to tour to schools in the fall of 2016!

Hope Enters the Dragon’s Den

For the past couple of months, our Artistic Director Hope McIntyre has been training to make a Dragon’s Den-style pitch in front of a panel of judges and live audience. No, Hope isn’t doing it to get her cardboard beach furniture business the jump start it needs, nor will she be trying to explain why the world needs a glove that lets you know what side of the road you should be driving on.  Hope will be pitching something very near and dear to her, something she’s dedicated her life to. Hope will be pitching transformative theatre.

Fast Pitch WinnipegThe pitch is really my own story about why I do what I do. It’s hard work. Running the company over the last 15 and a half years has meant sacrifices, challenges and very little pay! The pitch captures the impact of what we do and why I’m motivated to keep doing it.”

For those of you who have truly experienced life-altering theatre, the impact of transformative theatre is unquestionable. But Hope has been training in order to pitch transformative theatre to a new and different crowd – Winnipeg’s business sector. This is where the challenge comes in. That’s why The Winnipeg Foundation felt local charities could benefit from participating in Fast Pitch.

“The biggest challenge by far has been the 3-minute time limit. To explain all that we do in such a short time frame has been difficult. In order to do this it meant writing a very focused script and sticking to it – not extemporizing in the moment!”, said Hope.

Fast Pitch is in international program that trains leaders of charitable organizations to pitch their organization to the business sector “succinctly and powerfully.” Participants are paired with coaches who help them to develop their pitch and connect with members of the legal, financial, and business communities.

Team Sarasvati Fast Pitch“The biggest appeal was the ability to work with business professionals as coaches.” Hope is being coached by two business professionals – Paul Beatty of GrantThorton and Baillie Chisick of Aikins Law.

“It is important to get the word out about Sarasvàti Productions amazing work and to do that we have to make sure we are communicating clearly to those who may not have experienced ‘transformative theatre.’ I wanted to find new networks in the business community and learn how to pitch our work to these professionals. Plus the possibility of winning funds to support our work was a good incentive”, said Hope.

“I learned that many people did not know the breadth of work Sarasvàti has done and is doing. We need to brag more. My coaches were able to help me hone in on what a wider audience might be interested in so we can spread our message more effectively”

Creating a pitch requires a person to tap into their personal connection to the work.  The process asks leaders of charitable organizations to think about what drove them to do what they do and what keeps them doing it.

Fast Pitch group shotI have learned things that I would not have learned were it not for theatre. Every project we have undertaken and every show I have done has allowed me educate myself on a topic I would not otherwise have learned about. I am a much better-rounded person as a result. The work has also taught me compassion. Finally it has cemented my belief that storytelling is a powerful and important way to understand our world, validate our experiences and grow as human beings.

Hope will be making her pitch along with nine other local leaders of charitable organizations:

ArtsJunktion
Big Brother Big Sisters of Winnipeg
KidSport Winnipeg
Lake Winnipeg Foundation
Local Investment Toward Employment (LITE)
Prairie Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre
Sexuality Education Resource Centre Manitoba
Shakespeare in the Ruins
Spence Neighbourhood Association

“The best thing I learned was about the amazing work that all the other participant organizations are doing! It’s really inspiring to know that Winnipeg has such passionate people working to make health and vibrant communities” said Hope.

Check out Hope’s Fast Pitch interview and a video from the semi finals!

You can see Hope make her pitch live at The Met on April 7th at the Fast Pitch Winnipeg Showcase. Judges will decide the top prize, but there is also an audience choice award, so come out and support Sarasvàti ! Tickets are available on the Winnipeg Foundation website but hurry, they’re going fast!