Keeping the Conversation Going – Panel Discussions at Breaking Through

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Joe (Harry Nelken) takes it upon himself to welcome Stef (Elena Anciro) at the Mental Health Centre in Breaking Through

Speaking up is the seed of Breaking Through. Feeling able to speak, qualified to speak, and comfortable to speak are some of the challenges we’ve heard from the 400 Manitobans we worked with in the story-gathering phase of this project. Without the generosity and bravery of the individuals who contributed, this play would not have been possible. Now that Breaking Through has come this far, debuting to public audiences in a week, we want to keep the conversation open.

We have put together a series of panel discussions to take place after select performances of Breaking Through. We hope these panels will keep the conversation going while responses are fresh. Check out our panel discussion schedule to plan your experience.

May 24, 8pm –  The Creation Process Panel – Shirley Grierson and Dana Rungay of Red Threads Playback Theatre with Cairn Moore, co-writer of Breaking Through.

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Cairn Moore, Dana Rungay, Bequie Lake and Karissa Martins at Selkirk Mental Health Centre

Playback Theatre is a form of improvisational theatre that starts with listening deeply to people’s stories and then transforming them spontaneously into theatre. It is especially powerful in honouring the voices of people from marginalized communities and in helping to build understanding across differences.  Dana Rungay is a founder of Red Threads of Peace Playback Theatre. The traditional use of the arts of storytelling, music and dance are natural ways of restoring connection and community – the social support determinant of health.  This was the intention of their Playback Theatre involvement at Selkirk Mental Health Centre in collaboration with Sarasvàti Productions in the development process of Breaking Through.

 

 

May 25 , 8pm – Breaking Barriers Panel– Bryan Young, Dara Hallock, Danielle Sicotte, Co-Executive Directors and Event Director of the Breaking Barriers Summit on Mental Health.

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The Breaking Barriers Summit on Mental Health was the first student–led, multi university conference on mental health in the province. This year, they launched a collaborative initiative that brought together students from the three major academic institutions in our province. Students from the University of Manitoba, the University of Winnipeg & L’Université de Saint-Boniface joined together in an effort to not only reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, but to also effectively break down the barriers between our academic institutions.

May 26, 8pm – Varied Perspectives Panel – Jan DeFehr, Patricia Johnstone and the Winnipeg Police Service Vulnerable Persons Unit.

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Kennedy (Marsha Knight) seeks help for her sister Molly (Dorothy Carroll) in Breaking Through

Jan DeFehr, MSW, PhD, has twenty years experience as a clinical social worker in programs focused on youth ‘corrections’, violence in intimate partner relationships, crisis & trauma, and suicide prevention. She is an Associate of The Taos Institute, an honourary faculty member of the Houston-Galveston Institute, and a regular lecturer with The Kanankil Institute in Mérida Mexico. An Assistant Professor in the University of Winnipeg Faculty of Education, Jan presents her work locally and internationally and teaches mental health courses that expose and confront the misinformation and potential for harm in mainstream mental health services.

Pat Johnstone is the Mother of three children, all of whom have experienced some form of severe and persistent mental illness.  She is an advocate for improving the community supports, such as appropriate housing and benefits, to help the mentally ill to succeed in their recovery journey.  She chairs the Family Advisory Committee (friends and family members of patients) for the Selkirk Mental Health Centre (SMHC).

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KoKo (Josh Ranville) is visited by spirit guide (Marsha Knight)

Perspectives on this topic are just as varied as the people they come from. We don’t expect everyone to agree with what all the characters expresses in Breaking Through. Whatever your response is, we want to hear it. We encourage you to share any and all responses to the show. The panels provide a chance for dialogue and much needed discussion.

Breaking Through runs from May 23-28 at the Asper Centre for Theatre & Film.  Tickets are available in advance or at the door.

Watch a behind the scenes video by Ora Walker.

Behind the Scenes with Breaking Through

With less than two weeks until Opening Night, the cast of Breaking Through are delving deep in to their characters who are born out of so many Winnipegger’s stories. For this week’s blog we visited the actors in action for a behind the scenes look into Breaking Through.

Harry Nelken as "Joe" in Breaking Through

Joe (Harry Nelken)

Harry Nelken plays Joe, a sometimes prickly, sometimes charming mental health centre resident with the story of a lifetime.

“What excites me about Joe: he’s a fighter, he’s compassionate, he thinks of others, he nurtures, he’s loving, and a kidder”, says Harry, “most of all, he accepts who he is and his lot in life.”

 

Richie Diggs plays an array of different characters as the Male Ensemble in Breaking Through.

Richie Diggs as "Absame" in Breaking Through

A fateful encounter at a bus stop between Absame (Richie Diggs) and Stef (Elena Anciro)

“Everyone needs a healthy mind, but anyone can get a sick mind.” My character says this in the play, thereby distilling the entire play to that simple comprehension, says Richie. “It is a key point to note, not just because one’s own self may sometimes be confronted with the challenges of living with a mental illness, but that when we encounter others battling these health challenges, that understanding, and support will be our participation, rather than stigma, or exclusion, or fear.”

Elena Ancrio as "Stef" in Breaking Through

Joe (Harry Nelken) and Stef (Elena Anciro); Joe fulfills duty as the unofficial ‘welcome committee’ of the mental health centre.

“What I love about Stef is that she is strong and resilient, that even when she is struggling, she has a quick wit and the instinct to help others”, says Elena Anciro. “The journey she goes on during the play has a really important message for all of us. I think whenever you are tasked with playing a character that is based on a real person or is experiencing something very specific (in this case, anxiety and OCD), it’s hard not to feel nervous about “getting it right.” It’s been amazing to work with Hope and Cairn’s script and to explore the text / subject matter with the cast. There’s been a very supportive and ‘safe space’ vibe to our rehearsals, which has really helped me feel relaxed about finding Stef and telling her story.”

 

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Val (Spenser Payne) saves face!

Spenser Payne plays Val. “I think Val’s story is a really great story to witness, says Spenser.  “It’s hard to live up to certain beauty standards in our world, and doing my research on this character, really realized how common it is for women, and men to deal with an eating disorder. It happens to anyone, doesn’t matter your size, or gender. There is massive pressure from our social media world to look a certain way, or act a certain way, and I think seeing Val struggle with This concept will really resonate with audiences.”

 

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KoKo (Josh Ranville) is visited by spirit guide (Marsha Knight)

“I play different family members to more than one character so I am in relationship with more than one other person who has mental health concerns”, says Marsha Knight, who plays the Female Ensemble.

 

“Not only am I looking at the nuances for each character”, says Marsha, “I am also looking at the relationship. Those are areas that every actor addresses – characteristics, a uniqueness, the dynamic. This time around, there is a heightened awareness when it comes to the relationship part.”

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Molly (Dorothy Carroll) stirs things up at the mental health centre.

 

“Molly is so intensely dynamic”, says Dorothy Carroll. “We see her in her highest and lowest moments, which has made it a real challenging journey. Finding a way “in” to someone struggling as Molly does, and discovering the “whys” has been most enlightening.”

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Dr. Morgan (Richie Diggs) and KoKo (Josh Ranville

“KoKo is a voice of wisdom in the play”, says Josh Ranville. “There are beautiful painful moments of hopelessness at the start of the play but I also get to climb out of the muck. KoKo is a light beacon for the other characters to accept themselves for who they are. What a journey I get to go on every night we perform.”

Breaking Through runs May 23-28 at the Asper Centre for Theatre an Film. To see a full list of showtimes and to book tickets visit sarasvati.ca.

Photos by Janet Shum.

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L to R: Joe (Harry Nelken) Stef (Elena Anciro) KoKo (Josh Ranville) Val (Spenser Payne) and Molly (Dorothy Carroll)

 

 

The Long Journey to Breaking Through

Two years…that’s the average lifespan of a robin. Why work on a project for two years? It might be your first time reading about Breaking Through or perhaps you have you been following its progress for two years? Either way, as we launch in to rehearsals for the world premiere, we thought an overview was in order.

SMHC Playback

Playback group

In 2015 we launched “Mental Health is Everyone’s Health” with Artists in Healthcare Manitoba and Red Threads Playback Theatre. Much of the genesis was supported by the Selkirk Mental Health Centre where Red Threads did amazing playbacks sessions with residents who shared their stories and where co-writer Hope McIntyre had the honour of interviewing those in the geriatric and acquired brain injury ward. Sarasvàti also put out the word that we wanted to hear as many stories from as many perspectives. A need to break the silence and counter misrepresentation led to those with lived experience, health care workers and caregivers coming forward for interviews and to participate in open workshop sessions. We were hosted by the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, Rainbow Resource Centre, St. John’s High School, Resource Assistance for Youth and Aurora Family Centre’s male newcomer peer support group. In total almost 400 people shared their experiences! We were blown away. Writers Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore with the support of facilitator Nan Fewchuk faced the difficult task of compiling so many diverse perspectives in to a compelling play. In fact, they would have liked a third year to take on this daunting task!

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Nan Fewchuk and Cairn Moore make notes at a workshop reading of Breaking Through, 2016.

It was decided in consulting with all our partners that the ultimate goals was to increase empathy and understanding, highlight the reality that everyone has mental health, and demonstrate that everyone’s experience of illness is unique. All that as well as making it artistically engaging! Breaking Through was read in various drafts for those who contributed their stories. Then a full staged reading in May 2016 allowed actors to contribute their insights while testing the play out in front of an audience.

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Over one hundred feedback forms were received! Overall an extremely favourable response, but with amazing insights leading to round after round of rewrites. Then another workshop with actors thanks to the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and the guidance of Sharon Bajer in January 2017.

The process has already created a platform for people to talk about the importance of mental health for everyone. It is easy to think of mental health with an “us vs. them” mentality: people who have a mental illness and people who do not. However, it is important to know that this apparent line is a lot blurrier than many people may think. One in four Manitobans will receive medical treatment for a mental illness. Many people are affected in one way or another and some people to do not stop to consider their own mental health.

Finally we arrive at the beginning of the final stage. Our first read-through on Tuesday was exhilarating for everyone! We can hardly wait to share the results of this journey with the world or at least with Winnipeg audiences as a start.

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The world premiere of Breaking Through is coming up May 23-28, 2017 under the direction of Kevin Klassen with an accomplished Winnipeg cast and crew featuring Elena Anciro, Dorothy Carroll, Richie Diggs, Marsha Knight, Harry Nelken, Spenser Payne and Josh Ranville. Plus design team Kim Griffin (set/costumes), Dean Cowieson (lighting) and jaymez (video/sound).

For more information on Breaking Through and how to get tickets visit our website! http://sarasvati.ca/breaking-through-world-premiere/

Shattered Launches Tonight!

Although it is targeted at youth, Shattered is a powerful production and a must see for everyone! At our recent open rehearsal, one viewer asked “where were you when I was in high school?”

The interactive style is what truly makes it unique and empowering. As the audience’s guide for the experience, GeNie Baffoe has a presence that even the toughest audiences—aka grade 7 to grade 12—will warm to. Confident, expressive, and welcoming, GeNie is the Joker (a term used for a facilitator in Forum Theatre). He will have lots of back-up with the talented group of young  actors in the cast. They hit the road next week to open up the discussion about mental health with students at dozens of Manitoba schools.

“If you disagree with what is happening in the scene, if you notice that a character could be making better choices I want you to clap and yell stop at which point you will rise from your seat, join us up on stage and take the place of one of these characters, are you ready?”, announces GeNie. The actors step into place and begin the scene. In this scene, a young man berates another young man at school after finding out that his mother has a mental illness. Many characters are bystanders, but nobody steps in.

*Clap!*

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The scene freezes. GeNie identifies the clapper and invites her up on stage. GeNie asks, “What do you think this character could have done instead?”
And just like that youth are up on their feet, engaging in proactive solutions to stopping the stigma and providing support for those dealing with mental health. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

Sarasvàti Productions set the course for this play for youth while working on their larger Mental Health Project. The project saw Sarasvàti’s team of artists facilitate workshops with the public and a number of community organizations in order to gather real Winnipegger’s experiences with mental health. At the urging of youth a piece targeted to high schools was created. Shattered is set in a high school and is performed entirely by a young cast.

Since we can’t bring our fans and supporters in to high schools we have partnered with Graffiti Gallery and Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba to offer a special public preview. Funds raised will help take Shattered to schools that would not otherwise be able to afford it. Join us tonight, October 6th, at Graffiti Gallery (109 Higgins Avenue). The show starts at 7pm and tickets are only $10, available at the door. The performance is open to everyone. This is your chance to watch the play and hear what youth in our city are dealing with in terms of mental health.

We hope you can join us for the Shattered Fundraiser preview. If you’d like to support but you’re unable to attend you can contact the office at 204-586-2236 or donate at our website sarasvati.ca.  If you know of a school that should host a performance please contact Erin at touring@sarasvati.ca.

 

Art as a Way Out

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There are so many amazing stories about the healing power of art! Sarasvàti Productions’ new play script Breaking Through was created with this in mind. Our artists worked with people with lived experience, caregivers, mental health organizations, and the general public to collect experiences of mental health. It made sense as we prepared for staged readings of the play, to also gather the perspectives of artists in our community who live with mental health issues. We’ve been excited to interview artists about their experience with mental health, the stigmas they have encountered and the unique role art plays in their lives.

Quinn Whitlaw is a Winnipeg-based visual artist. He works mainly with ink and pencils and has been been creating more than ever over the past four months during his residency at ArtBeat Studio. It was only this past winter that Quinn re-discovered his love of drawing while he was in the hospital in recovery and treatment for Major Depressive Disorder and anxiety.

“I think there’s a lot of negative stigma around mental health and addiction problems. They really, really go hand in hand for a lot of people” said Quinn. He remembers feeling depression and anxiety beginning in grade 8. “I wouldn’t want to tell my friends because I wouldn’t want them to know about it. I wouldn’t want them feeling bad for me.”

Trying to cope has lead him to addiction problems throughout the years.

“People will look at someone that has mental health issue but is using drugs to deal with it and they’ll just think ‘he’s a druggie’ and ‘he’s no good’, when in actuality that’s the person’s only way out–the only way out of what they’re feeling ” said Quinn.

Quinn remembers liking to draw in grade 10. He hadn’t done it much since then, but Quinn took it up again while he was in the hospital because he had time on his hands. One of the hospital workers told Quinn about ArtBreat Studio, and he thought it sounded like a great idea.

ArtBeat Studio is a recovery-oriented program that is mental health consumer-initiated, and peer directed. It’s a community-based studio that accommodates artists whose mental health, social connection, and income make it impracticable for them, individually, to acquire a work space where they might advance their artistic technique safely and securely. Over a six-month period, nine artists are supported and mentored in managing their own workplace, production, and marketing within the operating parameters of the studio. Quinn is currently one of nine artists doing their residency at ArtBeat Studio.

“I think being an artist has given me a way out”, said Quinn, “when I feel down or am having a tough time I know that if I just sit down and start drawing everything will take a step back and I can focus on what I’m doing for once.”

We’ve spoken to a number of artists who describe creating and performing as therapeutic. For Quinn, drawing helps with his anxiety and depression,” Doing art puts me in a place where I can sit back and relax for a bit, which I can’t normally do” said Quinn. “You get a good feeling when you finish a piece of art. It feels good to accomplish something.”

Quinn is preparing to showcase his work this summer in ArtBeat Studio’s public exhibition. Although Quinn is looking forward to exhibiting his work, he admits that the stigma surrounding depression and anxiety prevents him from being more open about it.

“I still don’t really talk to anyone about it except for my doctor”, said Quinn.  “It’s hard to come out and talk about it because you never know who’s going to understand and who’s going to tell you ‘just suck it up’”, said Quinn. “It’s hard because people don’t always understand, and at the same time you can’t expect them to know unless they’ve dealt with it themselves”, explained Quinn. “ I think the stigma is around being sad all the time, not having as much friends, not going out and living life like you should—which sometimes is true when you’re in such a down spot, but not all the time. There are little glimmers of light that come out once and a while, right?”

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To find out more about ArtBeat Studio and their residency program visit artbeatstudio.ca. To see Quinn Whitlaw’s work in the flesh, and take in the work of all resident artists check out the exhibition at ArtBeat Studio from July 21- July 30.

Get your tickets to the staged reading of Sarasvati’s Breaking Through today!
May 22 & 28 at 3pm
May 24-27 at 7 pm
Asper Centre for Theatre and Film

 

Meet the Cast of Characters

Breaking Through word collage

We began by listening.

We listened to the community, to caregivers, and to many people who are living with mental health issues. We gathered hundreds of stories and now, we have woven them into one great, big, beautiful inter-connected play.  This story is full of magic, songs (yes songs!!), hope, humour and truth. And we are thankful for the wonderful team of people who are going to help us tell it.

THE CAST

Ian Bastin will be reading for the prickly but charming, Joe. Suffering from schizophrenia  Joe has a long history with various treatments for mental illness. Joe is never short on stories to tell, but will anybody listen?

Kelsey Funk will be reading Molly. Molly has bipolar episodes which often manifest as religious fixations. As a single parent living in poverty, she is forced to rely heavily on her already over-stretched sister.

Spenser Payne will be reading Val, an aspiring actor who has bulimia. Val wears a mask to hide her reality. She struggles to defeat the voices inside her head that tell her she is not enough.

Rachel Smith will be reading Stef, who lives with OCD and anxiety. Stef’s mental health issues threaten to shut her in as she struggles to leave the house and maintain relationships—even with those who care for her the most.

Erica Wilson will be reading KoKo. KoKo is a young, Indigenous two-spirited person with attitude. Will her creativity and strength outshine the depression and suicidal tendencies brought on by a lifetime of trauma?

Akalu Meekis, Ashley Chartrand and Nan Fewchuck read for a wide range of characters—including caregivers, a psychiatrist, police officer, and spirit guide.

After the first read of the script of Breaking Through, the cast summed the story up with one word each. The above collage is the result. Let us know what you think after you hear the story!

Breaking Through
A staged reading by Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore
In collaboration with the Mental Health Community

Asper Centre for Theatre and Film (at U of W, 400 Colony Street)
Tickets $15 Regular / $10 Students & Seniors
May 22 at 3pm
May 24-27 at 7pm
May 28 at 3pm

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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.