- Performing an Asylum: Tripping Through Time and La Pazzia
O! Visitor to Toronto ‘La Belle’ standing by the city Hall, Walk due west ’long Queen street, ’till you come to a high stone wall; Within the walls is a palace, extending right and left, This dear visitor is the home, for people of sense bereft, There are illusions and delusions, around you by the score,
But on this point, I’ll not say much, being sensitive and sore; This, you must remember, that patients here within, Are here, because we all were born into a world of sin . . . Now come inside the building, and enter into the halls, You will see many patients, whose sorrow for pity calls.1
The “high stone wall” noted by patient Graeme L. still marks the site of a Toronto mental health care facility. Although it is now called the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Queen Street Division, and the original asylum buildings first erected there in 1850 have been demolished and replaced by concrete buildings more formally akin to 1960s institutional modernism, the same stone walls continue to mark the site’s eastern and western borders. Within the walls the site has undergone many changes, each connected to shifting visions of the asylum, its role within the city, and the effective provision of mental health care.
This essay considers two theatrical productions performed by the Workman Theatre Project (WTP), an integrated theatre company that involves people with mental illness experience and seeks to challenge stigma. Both Tripping Through Time (1993) and La Pazzia (1999) built upon the particular institutional space of the mental hospital and former asylum grounds to provide audiences with different reminders of the social history and contemporary resonance of asylum life. In Tripping Through Time, audience members were diagnosed randomly and individually, labeled as inpatients, and employed in patient’s work. La Pazzia positioned the audience as medical clinicians engaged in a psychiatric postmortem. Explicit references in each to the site’s asylum history and geography connected the diegetic space with the actual environment surrounding both audiences and performers. The two productions played with specific spatial and historical features of the institutional site to open discussion of how people diagnosed with mental illness have experienced the highly stigmatized institutional space over time.
Whereas Tripping Through Time sought to build bridges to the broader community without, La Pazzia aimed to remind the medical professional community within of its responsibility to guard the dignity of patients. Tripping Through Time was produced as part of a larger public exploration of the asylum’s history, while La Pazzia was produced for the site’s clinicians and administrators as they marked the beginning of a new administration. The first drew newcomers into the space, received critical praise, and became one of the company’s most requested productions; the second attracted protest and challenged its audience to rethink divisions between on-site communities and their own [End Page 55] connections to past and present psychiatric practices. What shaped these different outcomes? How did each production use the institutional space to further the company’s aims?
Since 1989, the walls noted by Graeme L. have also contained the WPT, a performing arts company with its own board and independent mandate that operates out of the institution’s Joseph L. Workman Auditorium. The company is dedicated to artistically training and integrating people who have received mental health services with professional theatre artists. Founded in 1989 by former psychiatric nurse Lisa Brown, the company has since created over 20 theatrical productions, each focused on bringing an aspect of mental illness experience to public attention, and each aimed at challenging stigma about such experiences. The company’s productions have toured locally across Ontario and Manitoba and internationally to Germany.2 It is important to note that the company is not involved in drama therapy or psychodrama; rather, it aims to foster artistic achievement by providing professional theatre training to its members. Company members, now numbering over 400, are defined as individuals with interests in the arts who have received mental health services at some point during their lives. Members are active at all levels of the company...