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Currently in the writing stages, Sarasvàti Productions’ Breaking Through is truly a community effort.
In an effort to accurately tell stories of mental illness and how it touches every community, writers Hope McIntyre and Cairn Moore have interviewed and workshopped with over 400 participants.
"I knew we would hear from people but I didn’t know we’d hear from so many people we already know," said McIntyre, who is also acting as project director.
Beyond colleagues and friends, the writers heard from many community residents on their experiences with mental illness which ranged from being close to someone who has been diagnosed, to having gone through a mental health issue of their own.
"I was interviewed as a caregiver because my father has Alzheimer’s," actor Rachel Smith said.
After talking to the writers, Smith said she would be interested in being involved in the performance as well, and has since taken on the role of Stef.
"She has OCD and anxiety and we see her journey with that," she said of Stef’s character. "At the beginning she’s quite insular, she had a difficult time talking to people, she’s very standoffish… as she goes she is able to learn to accept herself."
Smith said she hasn’t personally experienced mental illness to the degree that Stef does, but she is no stranger to the stigma that comes along with it.
"Since my dad has been diagnosed, people have said, ‘Oh can’t he take medication and he’ll just get better?’ Or, ‘Well, you guys should have taken him to the doctor sooner,’" Smith said. "I actually sent a message to all of my friends and said, look, I’m only 26 and my dad has Alzheimer’s. We’re not taught to look at those signs. We’re taught about getting older and maybe having diabetes, or high cholesterol.
"No one ever tells you that your parent has a very real chance of getting some form of dementia, because it affects so many people."
She added that although Stef represents a progressed stage of her disease, there are parts of her story that many people will be able to relate to.
"I think we can all relate to certain aspects of those rituals and those habits and that anxiety," she said. "It helps you imagine, OK, what if it’s this much worse? What if you have to wash your hands six times before you leave the bathroom?"
River Park South resident Kelsey Funk is playing the part of Molly, a young mother who is dealing with bipolar disorder.
"You get a sense of what her life is like when she’s on medication, her day-to-day life… and you get a sense of what her manic episodes are like when she’s off her medications," Funk said. "She has a lot of religious fixations which as far as I understand, is pretty common in a lot of mental illnesses, especially bipolar."
Funk and the other actors had to delve into research to better understand the nuances of their characters’ illnesses; Funk, who has experienced an eating disorder, was surprised at how much she didn’t know about bipolar.
"I really pigeonholed it and thought that people who have bipolar, when they’re manic, they’ll do something outrageous and when they’re not manic, they’re just very obsessive," she said. "But what I learned is that it’s a spectrum and that everyone’s symptoms are very different so you can have manic symptoms that don’t reach that high level."
As part of community engagement, the group has done readings for a number of local organizations, such as the Rainbow Resource Centre, and taken the audience’s comments back to the drawing board.
Funk said that Molly is another character that is relatable, even without fully understanding what she is going through.
"There’s a scene that’s incredibly challenging, that as an audience member it would be tough to watch and still empathize with her, but you still do," Funk said. "She has so many redeeming qualities and she’s so human and that’s what I really like about her."
Writer McIntyre says that relating to the characters is an important way of better understanding these illnesses, and hopefully taking that compassion out into the community.
"We want the public to better understand what mental illness is and have more compassion for people who are struggling because we all struggle at times," she said. "We’re all human beings and all have stuff to deal with and how can we listen and show compassion, and that’s a better way for us to support our community."
Staged readings will take place on May 22 at 3 p.m.; May 24 to 27 at 7 p.m. and May 28 at 3 p.m. at the Asper Centre for Theatre and Film (400 Colony St., at the University of Winnipeg). Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors. To purchase tickets and to see show times, please visit www.sarasvati.ca
Community journalist — The Metro
Alana Trachenko was the community journalist for The Metro