Breaking down the barriers of mental illness

“Ashley!” The abrupt name call interrupts an exaggerated chorus of whimsical singing.

Seconds later comes a cacophony of delirious laughter. The performance had yet to begin and already feelings of confusion and chaos were building up inside of me. I looked around dumbstruck and asked myself: “What kind of play is this?”

The department of drama and speech communication released a new production this week titled <em>From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smith,</em> playing in the Theatre of the Arts. The play is a unique collaboration put together by writer/alumna Melanie Bennett, a group of UW drama students, director Prof. Andy Houston, as well as various other production members.

As its name suggests, the main inspiration for the play came from the long imprisonment and eventual suicide of Ashley Smith. However, <em>From Solitary to Solidarity</em> also includes life stories from the performers themselves who have taken Smith&rsquo;s recorded experiences with mental illness and mixed it into their own. This allows them to negotiate ways in which to remould society into a more supportive and aware space for those who face mental illnesses.

According to Houston, one of the most interesting aspects of the play is its ability to make viewers ask questions and generate discussion about mental illness. Some of these questions concern the influence of government institutions, the media, family, and even an individual person&rsquo;s perceptions of mental illness. The creators used an auto-ethnographic approach to help pose these questions through the play.

Houston explained that this method allowed those writing the play to join their own stories with Smith&rsquo;s to structure it. Both the personal and the political then became the subjects of examination and exploration.

&ldquo;The auto-ethnography is really about us [me; the writer, Melanie Bennett; and the student performers] being very reflective about who we are, where we are, in this system approaching Ashley Smith and trying to figure out who she was in the culture that she existed in and making those kinds of associations and comparisons,&rdquo; said Houston.

For me, the most shocking and appealing aspect of this method is that is doesn&rsquo;t allow viewers to distance themselves from what they&rsquo;re watching. You can&rsquo;t say, &ldquo;It&rsquo;s so sad that she died, but that doesn&rsquo;t really concern me.&rdquo; The auto-ethnographic approach puts the actors who have fought or continue to fight mental illness right in your presence, making it a part of your reality.

It exposes you to the painful effects of mental illness in a very personal way, because the actors aren&rsquo;t just telling you a story about some girl that you&rsquo;ve never met, they&rsquo;re also telling you about their personal stories. What&rsquo;s more, they are physical beings who are dancing, crying, screaming, and crawling right in front of you instead of being a picture or a video on some media provider.

You can&rsquo;t turn away. You have to watch, and you have to feel. Only then will the issue of mental illness begin to mean something to you, and you can start asking the questions and having the discussions that Houston and the creators of this play are aiming to inspire.

<em>Two more showings of </em>Solitary to Solidarity<em> will be shown March 21 and 22. Visit the department of drama and speech communication&rsquo;s webpage (<a href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank"></a>) for more details.</em>