From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith

Solitary to Solidarity PosterWritten by Melanie Bennett in collaboration with UWaterloo Drama students.

Directed by: Andy Houston

Performances: March 19, 20, & 22, 2014

Venue: Theatre of the Arts, Modern Languages Building

See the production archive webpages for Solitary to Solidarity

UWaterloo Drama presented a new project exploring issues of mental health in the context of the troubling, and still emerging, story of Ashley Smith, a teenager who died at Grand Valley Institution for Women in 2007.

From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith used a collaborative performance approach to try to understand the life and death of Ashley Smith. In the performance, students investigated the social and political consequences of broken correctional and mental health institutions, and addressed the evolving perceptions and assumed objectivity of the media.

Written by UWaterloo Drama alumna Melanie Bennett and conceived by Professor Andy Houston, this ‘auto-ethnographic performance’ incorporated the personal perspectives of the students who performed – students who were roughly the same age as Ashley when she died. Differing from docudrama, which attempts to represent real events, auto-ethnographic performance connects the personal to the storytelling; it avoids presenting ‘the facts’, but instead represents truth as always mediated, unstable, and entangled in politics and personal interests. Watch video below to hear Andy talk about the approach to this play.

During the run of this production, there was a symposium of invited speakers who addressed the issue of mental health awareness at the University of Waterloo and in the broader Waterloo region; following each performance, there was a Q&A that invited critical reflection, discussion, and feedback from the audience. 

Who was Ashley Smith?

In 2003, 15-year-old Ashley Smith was incarcerated for a minor offence (throwing crabapples at a mail carrier) at the New Brunswick Youth Centre, where she spent 27 of 36 months in solitary confinement. At 18, she was transferred to the adult prison system in which she was moved between cells and intuitions 17 times in less than a year. In October 2007, Ashley was brought to Waterloo Region, and on October 19, inside her solitary confinement cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women, she died by self-strangulation using a cloth ligature – while prison guards allegedly watched, failing to intervene in time to rescue her. An inquest investigating the circumstances surrounding her incarceration and eventual death finally commenced in September 2012; in December 2013 the jury declared Ashley’s death a homicide. This troubling story and inquest has sparked a great deal of media attention for its shocking exposure of Canada’s prison system and neglect of those suffering from mental illness.

Read Martin DeGroot's article in the KW Record "Play explores the tragic story of Ashley Smith"

Read Bob Vrbanac's article in the Waterloo Chronicle "From Solitary to Solidarity"


Sam Beuerle

Rebecca Birrell

Chantaine Green-Leach

Michelle Kestle

Eric Kim

Soo-Ram Km

Adam Lemieux

Marielle Lyon

Natasha Melfi

Kara Nagel

Kandi Prosser

Stefan Radic

Adam Winchester


Director - Andy Houston

Playwright - Melanie Bennett

Set/Prop Designer - Gill Lesperance

Costume Designer - Sharon E. Secord

Lighting/Video Designer - Paul Cegys

Associate Lighting Designer - Hilary Pitman

Sound Designer - Colin Labadie

Video Content Designer - Tallen Kay

AR Specialist - Stephen Fernandez


Production Manager - Janelle Rainville

Technical Director - Gill Lesperance

Stage Manager - Meghan Jones

Assistant Stage Managers - Adam Bromley, Bob Stan, Ali Watson

Head of Paint/Carps - Teresa Allen

Head of Props - Stefan Radic

Head of Video - Alice Wang

Head of Sound - Katie Stewart

Head of Publicity - Rachel Wyatt

Production Crew:

Jessica Blondin

Carly Derderian

Clare Flood

Mollie Garrett

Zac Gungl

Mark Haasnoot

Cameron Jolliffe

Andrew Labre

Meghan Landers

Marielle Lyon

Kara Nagel

Alan Shonfield

Sydney Spidell

Special thank-yous

Calla Churchward

Alexsandria Birch

Amber Cronin

Nashid Chowdhury

Shannon Figuereo

Colleen McMillan

Shawna Percy

Sharon Roberts

Kelly Conlan

Andy Dedlow

Madeline Samms

William Innes

Victoria McQuat

Gary Clift

Wendy Philpott

Chris Read, Associate Provost of Students

Michelle Ashburner

Tom Ruttan

Brianna Wiens

Jasmine Saleh