Rethinking Mental Illness: New play grounded in truth

MORGAN: Your worker says you have been behaving differently.

KOKO: I pride myself on behaving differently.

-excerpt from Breaking Through by Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore

The stories of five individuals struggling with mental health issues interweave in Sarasvàti Productions new play, Breaking Through. Playwrights Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore created Breaking Through as part of community-based two-year Mental Health is Everyone’s Health project. The project saw McIntyre and Moore team up with Artists in Health Care, Red Threads Playback Theatre and the Selkirk Mental Health Centre as well as working with multiple community organizations and the public. The resulting play is an exploration of mental illness grounded in real experience.

This week, we catch up with the playwrights to talk about the journey of this new, provocative play – from inspiration to early stages of production.

1)            What was the impetus that got you going on Breaking Through?

McIntyre: Meeting with so many people and hearing their stories was all the inspiration needed. We were lucky to have several individuals contact us to share, others show up to the open sessions and amazing workshops at numerous organizations. There was never an issue of lack of material or desire to write but more so too much material!

Moore: For me it was during our visits to female prisons across Canada during the writing of Hope and I’s play “Jail Baby.” Early on I realized at least 30 percent of the women we were meeting, had serious mental illness. In prison, those issues were not, and would never be, addressed.  I wanted to be a part of changing that.

Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore at the book launch of their play ‘Jail Baby’

 

2)            Do you feel like your understanding of mental health has changed while working on this play? How?

McIntyre: Not changed per say as I have worked with and had many people in my life who struggled with mental health prior to this project. I think what I realized is that every individual has their own experience and own perspective. One of the challenges is to show the myriad responses and points of view. Some have been devastated by the medications they were prescribed and lost quality of life whereas others we spoke with believe the medications saved their lives. There are no easy answers or one size fits all solutions but a need to really honour each story.

Moore: Definitely. Particularly when it comes to medication in North America. While visiting Selkirk Mental Health Centre, I realized that what I originally thought was “mental illness” was really the side effects of medication. That was a scary moment.

3)            While doing research, workshops and interviews with the public, what surprised you most?

McIntyre: The willingness of people to share was the most surprising. There was clearly a desire to talk about it in order to educate, increase awareness and to stop feeling like it was something that needed to be hidden. Many people I knew beforehand in other capacities came forward to share. I feel I started to stop and listen more after going through this process. Asking someone how they are doing, really doing, can be such an important thing.

Moore: That most of us experience mental health issues, even those people who may seem like they have the world by the tail. I was surprised at just how sick people can get. How much care takers and loved ones sacrifice to help those suffering from mental illness. How very real psychosis is, to those who experience it. That we need to recognize people with mental illness, are not their illness, for example, a person is not schizophrenic; they are a person with schizophrenia. The illness should not define them, any more than cancer should define someone. That person is not cancer; they are a person who has cancer. We really need to rethink how we talk about mental illness.

4)            What do you hope the audience is talking about on the car ride home from Breaking Through?

McIntyre: I hope they are opening up about their own struggles, discussing the reality that it is universal and exploring how we should support anyone who is going through a rough time by providing them with what they need.

Moore: I hope there is passionate debate. Talking about mental illness is the first step. It is my greatest wish as a playwright, to raise questions, rather than answer them. Silence is the most difficult hurdle. We should be able to talk about mental illness with our friends, in our work place, without fear of being stigmatized.

Breaking Through premieres on May 23rd and runs until May 28th at the Asper Centre for Theatre & Film. Tickets are available now on our website or by calling the office at 204-586-2236.

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.

McNally book launch photo4

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!

From Stories to Stage

Shannon Guile leading a "circus" scene

Jail Baby

Have you ever wondered how exactly we develop our community-based plays? We’ve produced many over the years, including Giving Voice, Jail Baby, Immigration Stories, Diss, Empty, and No Offense… All of these plays were compiled by our Artistic Director Hope McIntyre (and sometimes a writing partner) in collaboration with various organizations in the community. For the past year Hope & Cairn Moore have been working with multiple mental health organizations as part of our “Mental Health is Everyone’s Health” project.

 

VOICES - 2

Giving Voice

During the process of creation there has been: inspiring forums at the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, Rainbow Resource Centre for Youth, St. John’s High School, Resource Assistance for Youth, and the Aurora Family Therapy Centre’s Newcomer support group; the opportunity to observe sessions facilitated by Red Threads Playback Theatre at Selkirk Mental Health Centre; and multiple individual interviews. With enough material to create several plays the team works to honour each story. Then the draft is brought back to the community to make sure it is an accurate reflection.

 

Most recently to help refine the play we did a reading at the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society on February 22 and another on February 29 at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre. We got a lot of great feedback – here’s what some of the participants and audience had to say:

“I found the reading the other day really fantastic. I loved the input from everyone and think the script is really raising great discussion points.”

“One of the main messages which I think is coming over, is the value of listening. Helping people feel that they are important because someone is taking the time to listen.”

“Love this: ‘I am not bipolar. I have bipolar’ more people need to realize this.”

“This is a thought-provoking play.”

“Looking forward to finished version.”

“I like the production!!!” – resident at Selkirk Mental Health Centre

 “I loved all of the characters and loved that the play incorporated stylistic elements, like the singing about pills, and the lights and sound effects of voices. I feel like a play on this subject wouldn’t reach those who aren’t affected by mental health without those special effects.”

“Working on this project was an absolutely enriching experience. It was so powerful to share my experiences and to see so many others share their stories as well. For me, hearing all these people speak really solidified how different all our experiences with mental health can be; and how important it is that these stories get told.” – Hailey Charney

 

Hope and Cairn are now busy rewriting for the last reading planned at the youth peer support group at Rainbow Resource Centre on April 11. Afterwards, it’s full steam ahead to prepare for the public staged readings May 22 to 28 at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film, plus special previews and opportunities for community organizations! For more information, and to get tickets, click here or phone 204-586-2236.

 

Stories that Heal

25% of Manitobans age 10 and older received medical care for at least one mental illness in 2012/13. There were approximately 629 hospitalizations for self-injury and for the years 2008-2012 a suicide rate of less than one for every thousand Manitoba residents. In Winnipeg specifically the rate of mental illness at 25.8%. Mental health and wellness is a big issues and it touches us all.

Thanks to the Winnipeg Foundation we are doing amazing work in the community to breakdown stigma and increase awareness. We are excited to have already done inspiring sessions with an array of individuals who are affected by mental illness, as well as doing numerous individual interviews.

Our partners, Artists in Healthcare Manitoba and Red Threads Playback Theatre have been spearheading sessions out at Selkirk Mental Health Centre. The initial work has been amazing with a great level of participation, lots of fun and important stories being shared.

Engaging in art making has had a therapeutic benefit for all involved so far, including the artists!

Cairn Moore

Cairn Moore

Sarasvàti regular Cairn Moore is working on the project which aligns nicely with her most recent writing venture. Stigma was read at FemFest 2015 and had a powerful effect on audiences. In fact the University of Winnipeg Psychology Department felt it was an excellent vehicle for education and are hosting a special event to mark World Mental Health Day, which will include the reading of excerpts from the play and a discussion. Please feel free to attend this free event on Friday, October 9th from 12:30pm-2pm at Eckhardt-Grammatté Hall (University of Winnipeg, 3rd Floor Centennial Hall).

Stigma follows the story of first year University student Anna Almeida, as she is catapulted into the strange and terrifying world, known as schizophrenia. A diagnosis referred to by many, as a death sentence. Strange characters come to visit and refuse to go away. Soon, young Anna with a bright future, can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is not.