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World premiere performance addresses mental health issues

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Drama program does it all. From adapting Shakespeare to staging current issues, from learning technical theatre skills to studying performance theory: students develop intellectual, applied and creative capacity.

boy sittin gon floor surrounded by file boxes overflowing with paperIn the Department's upcoming premier, From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith, our students are stretching their capacities even more. The multi-media performance features 13 students who play themselves rather than characters. The student-actors show their struggles with both personal and social perspectives on mental health, institutionalization and media – all in the context of trying to understand the troubling story of Ashley Smith, who died in a Kitchener prison in 2007.

“This incredibly sad case really resonated for me on several levels.  Ashley was around the same age as my students when she died; her struggles were, in some ways, extreme versions of what many youth deal with: mental, emotional and social pain while coping within institutional constructs. And, of course, this federal tragedy took place just kilometres from our university campus.”  

- comments Professor Andy Houston, who directed the project and play.

When details of the 19-year-old’s death by self-asphyxiation in view of guards broke in the media, it exposed alarming problems in Canada’s prison system – particularly neglect of those suffering from mental illness. The problems were underscored in December 2013 when Ashley Smith’s death was declared a homicide.

Girl standing in dark hallway with small stuffed pink pigThe intent of the production is clear in the title ‘from solitary to solidarity’: the students parse (or unravel) a story of terrible isolation and illness with the goal to reach shared awareness toward mental health in both personal and institutional spaces.

Much of the research and content in the play was generated by students in several of Houston’s Drama courses over the past two years. And, keeping the project in the Waterloo community, the final script was written by Melanie Bennett, a Waterloo Drama alumna who is now completing her PhD at York University.

For much of Houston’s work with students, personal representation often provides the inroad to engagement with larger issues.

“Theatre addresses difficult issues in a unique way. When the performers are actually present, when they show themselves as people, not just characters, who are wrestling with the subject matter, then the audience is bearing witness to an event; the audience can play an active role as they respond to the struggles presented on the stage.”


The From Solitary to Solidarity project includes a website, which provides information about the performance, a student-designed exhibition, and a symposium of experts on mental health on campus and in Waterloo Region: solitary2solidarity.com