Where a stone wall once shielded the dark fortress of the former Provincial Lunatic Asylum at 999 Queen Street West in Toronto, a low black-iron picket fence grazes the perimeter of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the largest facility of its kind in Canada. Inside, paintings of landscapes and dreamscapes deck the concrete walls, all works signed by patients. Around the bend and inside the windowless Training Room A, one man blinks as he speaks, one fidgets with his feet, and another stutters out a story—but one is acting. Some have previous training in theatre, most are unemployed, but all share a background in therapy, playing the real life role of mental health patient in the Workman Theatre Project (WTP), a professional, not-for-profit theatre company that draws from the talent of current and former patients.
Sporting chunky black-rimmed glasses and a notepad, Katherine Ashby, an actress and improv teacher of 15 years, motions for the group to begin a game called “What are you doing?” One member calls out the action and another steps in to demonstrate, prompting a series of scenes involving swimming, blowing up frogs and giving birth to a Sasquatch. A voice shouts for the next member to act as if he’s walking through a park. John, a middle-aged man labelled manic-depressive, picks up his knees and marches on the spot.
“John, don’t act like you’re going for a walk,” Ashby critiques. “Go for a walk.”
Ashby teaches her students to let go of labels and release themselves from the script that prevents them from taking risks. Like mental illness, improv involves the mind and body. With that, John smirks, strolls to the exit, walks out and lightly slams the door behind him. The audience laughs. About 30 years ago, John was a patient at the Clark Institute of Psychiatry, now affiliated with CAMH, and at other times he was homeless in Yorkville, writing and selling poetry in cafés to buy food. He has been a member of WTP for eight years and an employee for seven years, hired to clean the facilities. He says he seeks joy in improv, rather than therapy.
“I would connect improvisation in theatre with improvisation in life,” says Dr. Steve Levine, a professor at York University who teaches psychotherapy and the arts. “We suffer when we have no room to move, no free play in a restricted situation. Improvisation teaches us that we can always find a solution, even when the situation itself doesn’t seem to offer one.”
Levine says play naturally relaxes and frees people, providing a healthy distance from problems. Through play, he teaches that, “the artist is moved to create as a way of responding to the world,” performing spontaneous dialogue, gestures and scenes, which in turn affect how others will receive and react to the information.
For instance, in a game called “Finish the sentence” WTP members are instructed to complete their partner’s statement, an exercise that tests both listening skills and creativity. What they concoct is a little bit of both. “Last week…” “…My mother told me to fuck off.” “Fence posts and cabbage…” “…Make me want to puke.”
“Improvisation is about playing the game,” says Levine. “expanding a tight existence and conditioned lifestyle by letting go of preconceptions.” To the members of WTP, improv is more than 12 steps to becoming sober or 12 steps to becoming famous: They learn real life skills through improvisational theatre. And it all starts with “shut up and listen,” says Ashby.
For four years, Ashby has taught improv to current and former mental health patients at WTP. She has also taught seniors in Ryerson University’s Act II program and she helped launch the youth program at Second City, a comedy club and training facility that jump-started the careers of Mike Myers, John Candy and Dan Akroyd. Ashby believes improv can benefit everyone. “You can teach the young, the elderly and the insane,” she says, then quickly corrects herself. “I mean those who seek therapy.”
Ashby came to work for WTP as an experienced improv instructor with little to no experience in therapy, except as a patient. But WTP has never been about therapeutic intervention. “This is a training centre,” she says. “Not therapy.” Its purpose is to make audiences aware of mental health issues and stereotypes, and provide its members with professional training in theatre, visual arts and creative writing. And if members discover a talent, make a friend or laugh more than before they enrolled, then WTP has served its purpose. “They don’t know they’re getting medicine,” she says, “because they’re having so much fun.”
WTP is named after Joseph Workman, the superintendent of the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in the late 1800s, who believed in “moral therapy” or rather, fresh air, cleanliness, good diet and natural healing. Workman brought compassion to how mental health is perceived by the public. Just as Lisa Brown, a former psychiatric nurse at CAMH, has brought compassion to WTP. Brown founded WTP in the early ’90s and has acted as the company’s artistic producer ever since, helping the company to gain international recognition. One of the company’s previous stage productions includes Joy, a musical about depression.
Before CAMH, French philospher Michel Foucault’s theory of social control reigned over not only prisons but psychiatric institutions. Their purpose, he believed, was to isolate and control the socially undesirable. There was also the idea of the docile body, whereby people in authority could measure, manipulate and control weaker individuals.
Improv isn’t designed to measure class systems, psychiatric medications or social labels. And because of this freedom students act less inhibited and less concerned with public acceptance. Because of Ashby’s training in theatre not therapy, she was nervous to start her first improv class at WTP, enough so that one member tried to make her feel comfortable by sharing his own anxieties. “I left my job at a juice factory,” he told her. “I couldn’t concentrate.”
One in eight Canadians is hospitalized for mental illness at least once in a lifetime, more than cancer and heart disease. A person can break every bone in his or her body and return to work with no problem, Ashby says, but if he or she leaves for mental health reasons co-workers fear the person will snap at any moment. The members of WTP are stronger than most simply because they’ve confronted such problems. They’ve lived through unemployment, poverty, family dysfunction and death, drug addictions, psychiatric labels like manic-depressive disorder, as well as social labels like crazy.
Ashby asks the group to line up against the wall facing the audience. Two by two, members interact in improvised scenes. Rob—fidgety, round, bald and jovial—calls freeze and steps in to the scene with Jody, a wirey middle-aged woman wearing a faded ballcap and square-framed glasses. They resume their roles. “The sky is blue,” Jody hollars, waving her finger at the ceiling. “It’s blue,” says Rob in a monotone voice. Ashby cuts in, provides feedback, and the scene ends. Rob first sought therapy because he lacked relationships. At WTP, improv provides a social atmosphere that feeds on group dynamics as well as individual creativity.
By pretending to be something you’re not, you’re still pulling from yourself,” he says.
Ashby always encourages WTP members to bring their moods and emotions. It’s the range of emotions that makes people and role-playing interesting. “If you’re a person who’s only ever on one note all the time you can be a great actor,” she says, “but these guys have so many keys on the piano to play on.” There’s always the pressure to happy, she adds, despite happieness being listed in psychology textbooks as a temporary state. “I want them to have fun with the emotions that they can.”
Martin, a slender man with a tidy mustache, is a former alcoholic and patient at the Clark Institute of Psychiatry. He has been in improv for three years and says it helps him, first and foremost, because it gets him out of the house. “80 per cent of success is showing up,” he says.
Ashby asks the group to sit in a circle and share what they’ve done in the past week. One man blinks as he speaks, revealing to the group that he fasted the day before Ramadan. Rob fidgets with his feet and coyly tosses out a knock-knock joke. And John says, “I lllearned ttto ssstop stttuddering.” But everyone knows he’s acting.