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.

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.