August 23, 2017

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Changing perspectives

Play tells the stories of people suffering with mental illness

JANET SHUM PHOTO</p><p>Elena Anciro, left, and Richie Diggs star in the play Breaking Through.</p>

JANET SHUM PHOTO

Elena Anciro, left, and Richie Diggs star in the play Breaking Through.

The last time local theatre vets Cairn Moore and Hope McIntyre collaborated on a play, the result was Jail Baby, a 2013 drama about incarcerated women.

You might say that baby spawned a new collaboration for Sarasvati Productions artistic director McIntyre and Moore, the associate artistic director of Femfest.

Like Jail Baby, the new work, Breaking Through, is the product of exhaustive research.

It is the culmination of more than two years of interviews with people sharing their experiences of mental health and the institutions that treat it.

Those experiences have been, for dramatic purposes, winnowed down to a drama focusing on five characters. KoKo is a two-spirited aboriginal youth who has bounced from foster home to group home. Molly is a single mother with bi-polar disorder. Stef is prone to anxiety and sensitive to the feeling she’s being judged by the world around her. Val’s desire to live a perfect life has resulted in an eating disorder. And the elderly Joe, living with schizophrenia, has dwelled in and out of institutions for 50 years.

Moore says writing the play was almost the same process as Jail Baby, which included visits to women’s penitentiaries around the country.

"We both went to the Selkirk Mental Health Centre for a long period of time. And we put out a call for people who were willing to talk about mental illness," Moore says. "We offered workshops, and people came, and I couldn’t believe how easily people opened up. They really wanted to talk about it."

They heard a lot of stories but the hard part was choosing which ones to tell.

McIntyre says the sheer scope of the play necessitated a division of duties between the two playwrights.

"When we were at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre, I was charged with interviews in the geriatric and brain injury (patients)," McIntyre says. "That was very interesting for me because it immediately focused on the history (of mental health treatment). Many of the geriatric patients I spoke with have been dealing with an illness for a long time and they’ve seen the changes in treatment for upwards of 50 years.

This helped the playwrights narrow down how perceptions of mental health issues have changed and the way treatment has evolved in that time frame.

"I was shocked by one resident tell me how they used to give him insulin treatments that essentially put him into a coma, and if they had given him one milligram more of the wrong dose, they would have killed him," McIntryre says. "But that was how they treated schizophrenia 50 years ago."

Breaking Through is directed by Kevin Klassen with an all-local cast including Elena Anciro, Dora Carroll, Richie Diggs, Marsha Knight, Harry Nelken, Spenser Payne and Joshua Ranville.

randall.king@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @FreepKin

Read more by Randall King.

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