For years, if not over a decade I have had a deep fascination with the history of mental health and how it was treated or even approached in times gone by. Today we are more advanced in terms of treating mental health, compared to the era of these infamous lunatic asylums. However, looking back helps us to undoubtedly confirm how far we have actually come.
Through her creative genius, theatrical expertise and storytelling gifts, Creator and Director Rosanna Saracino, has brought one of the most talked about discoveries in the past 20 years, to life on the Toronto stage.
Therefore, let me set the scene for all my followers reading this. Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane opens its doors in 1869 in New York State. With the Era of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason to others, just beginning, Mental health institutions are still stuck in their old ways, which many dare not to question; either down to fear or lack of knowledge.
Years passed and many individuals were admitted to this institution, with very few ever being discharged home. Many stories and articles have been written in the past about Willard Asylum, based on the treatment, the medical experiments, and the quality of life experienced by the residents of this 19th century hospital.
But what about the patients themselves? Who were they? What were they like? Did they even belong there? Many of the individuals who lived here were indeed suffering with mental illnesses, which in today’s world could be treated without hesitation, but there was without a doubt (like many other asylums of that era) a high number of people who were either victims of crimes or simply those who society deemed undesirable.
With very few hospital artefacts available and laws governing patient health records of that time, how would we ever find out who these unfortunates were.
It was not until 1995 when Willard finally closed its doors, that an employee, Beverley Courtwright, stumbled across a find that would turn the asylum’s history upside down. Hidden away in a concealed upstairs attic was over 400 suitcases of patients who resided there between the years 1910 and 1960.
As the authorities opened each suitcases, it was revealed that each one contained the prize possessions of these people; from a simple photograph to a hairbrush, and from a family letter to prescriptions. It was through this find that historians could start piecing together, not only who their lives within these inescapable four walls, but the lives they had before they entered.
With such a compelling back story, how could creator Rosanna Saracino not jump at the chance to bring this story to life on stage. With the inspiration of the suitcases being unearthed in 1995, and her ambition to tell this story, Rosanna along with 21 wonderful cast members and crew, has created a play based on truth, with the use of fictional characters. This move not only allows the attendees to discover something interesting of those persecuted, but discover something about themselves in the process. Rosanna explains:
Suitcases examines “otherness” in our society, then and now. It is a love letter to anyone who has suffered in silence, and faced the consequences of stereotyping, judgement, social isolation, secrecy or fear. It is a tribute to anyone who has been persecuted for being different. And finally, it is an expression of how hauntingly turbulent our secret lives may be, but also, of the unexpected community which can emerge when individuals find their tribe.
As the cast and crew are planning to hit the stage from Nov 1st to Nov 8th 2016, The Entertainment Fairy decided to catch up with one of the lucky cast members, Tyler Burton, and ask him a few questions on what we should look forward to.
How do you feel about performing in a play, which tells the story of the patients of the Willard Asylum? Is it a challenge? Does it intrigue you?
Tyler: When people hear that the inspiration behind suitcases is an insane asylum, I think the initial impression is that the show will be very dark and twisted. While moments of this show are very dark, I think what I’ve found most intriguing is exploring the “lighter” and more “humorous” sides to life in an asylum. Its a nice contrast to the stereotypical image of padded rooms and straight-jackets.
Did you do any research into this area, when you were given the role?
Tyler: I’ve been in constant research mode ever since I found out about the show. There are so many different areas to explore, that I find I can’t help myself but want to know everything about this topic. I’ve focused the majority of my research on different types of mental illness, as well as the affects of being kept in an asylum might have on any individual; afflicted or not.
Can you tell us anything about you character?
Tyler: The most interesting thing about this process is that our characters are being created and developed as we go. It is important to remember that our characters are not portrayals of real people. They have been created and devised, based on our impressions of what was found in the Willard Asylum Suitcases. For my character, however, I have been playing with the idea of a person who is intrigued by everything…Humans, nature, art, architecture. Although very in tune with his surroundings, he can be dangerously over-indulgent and obsessive.
What do you hope the audience will take away from the show?
Tyler: I’m hoping that the audience will leave the show with many questions. I want people to consider what makes a person “normal” and perhaps question their own sanity, after seeing this performance. The idea that this show is a “love letter to those wrangling with invisible monsters” is important. I hope people will connect with the characters; be it a scene, a monologue, a few lines, and know that no matter what monsters a person is fighting with, they’re never alone.
What’s next for you after “Suitcases?” Have you any further projects lined up?
Tyler: As of right now, I have no specific plans. I guess that’s the beauty of pursuing a career in the arts; you never really know what’s just around the corner. This is why I am so grateful to the cast and crew of Suitcases for giving me the opportunity to create.
So there you have it folks, this new Toronto Production is set to please crowds this November.
I have my ticket already…HAVE YOU? If not, here is where you can get them.
To purchase tickets online, please click HERE.
Performances will be held from 1st November until 6th November at the Artscape Sandbox, located at 301 Adelaide Street West, Toronto.
I’m excited & I hope you all are too. Roll on November 1st. SEE YOU THERE!!!!
(Post-Run Review to follow)