In March 2014 UWaterloo Drama presented From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith, a new project exploring issues of mental health in the context of the troubling story of Ashley Smith, a teenager who died at Grand Valley Institution for Women in 2007. The inquest on the circumstances surrounding her incarceration and eventual death recently declared her death a homicide. Ashley’s story has sparked a great deal of attention for its shocking exposure of Canada’s prison system and neglect of those suffering from mental illness.
This production is not a recreation and performance of the life of Ashley Smith. From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith uses a collaborative performance approach to try to understand the life and death of Ashley Smith. In the performance, students investigate the social and political consequences of broken correctional and mental health institutions, and address the evolving perceptions and assumed objectivity of the media.
The play is conceived and directed by Professor Andy Houston and written by uWaterloo alumna Melanie Bennett in collaboration with uWaterloo Drama students. The multi-year process creatingFrom Solitary to Solidarity began with a Dramaturgy class assignment in 2011, and more recently was the main focus of a Devising Theatre course. Differing from docudrama, which creates the illusion of silent authorship and realism, From Solitary to Solidarity is auto-ethnographic, a form of research and writing that connects the personal to the cultural. Auto-ethnographic performance does not claim to present ‘the facts’, but instead represents truth as always mediated, unstable, and entangled in politics and personal interests. It is a method of performance that allows the artists to approach the subject with unapologetic empathy and/or dissent – which in turn invites the audience to do the same. This auto-ethnographic performance incorporates the personal perspectives of the students who perform – students who are roughly the same age as Ashley when she died.