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Raising Awareness: The Workman Theatre Project

Network, Spring 2004

The Workman Theatre Project (WTP) is a not-for-profit performing arts company with over 15 years’ experience in integrating individuals who have experienced mental health problems with arts professionals. WTP has produced more than 12 original new Canadian plays, toured over 30 theatres across Ontario and Manitoba and played to over 115,000 people. Each year they produce the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival, the Being Scene art exhibition, and a theatre training program. Last year WTP also produced the first ever Madness and Arts 2003 World Festival at Tor onto’s Harbourfront Centre. This unique arts company, led by founder/executive director Lisa Brown, has attracted national and international attention. WTP works in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and is based in Toronto at the Joseph Workman Auditorium, at the Queen Street site of CAMH.

Lisa, it’s a big leap from being a nurse to becoming the founder and artistic producer of something that now has international recognition. How did that happen?

I came to Toronto in 1982 fresh out of nursing school, not knowing a soul, and ended up at Queen Street. I was probably somewhat of an atypical nurse even back then. I tended to gravitate towards the artistic individuals and they to me. I worked evening shifts a lot, and it sort of evolved to where we would have talent shows on Friday nights. Anything from someone using a garbage can as a drum and a broom for a mic, to a poetry recital. The Workman Theatre Project grew out of what I was doing as a nurse in the mental health field.

How would a typical production at WTP take place?

It depends on what it is, whether it’s a film festival, an art exhibit, a theatre show or a training program. We have diversified to the point where we are now multi-disciplinary. In terms of a theatre production, a concept would be developed, we would research the subject, and then hire a professional playwright to work with our members to develop the play. All the theatre shows that we produce deal with mental health issues, so they are both an artistic expression on the part of the artist involved, as well as a way of promoting public education. Once we have a script that everyone is happy with, we start to put the team together. First of all we hire a director and have one of our members apprentice under that director. That same process works in all of the various departments. For instance, we would have a professional stage manager and an assistant stage manager. When onstage, we have a 50/50 split of equity actors and membership actors.

How long would you be in production?

That depends on the show. We were working on the musical Joy for about five years. That was a very difficult show to develop. We finally got it up with a cast of nine. With another show it may take three months to develop the script. In most cases we have a four-week rehearsal period and a two-week run. An exception to that has been Vincent, which has toured throughout Ontario and Manitoba for the past 11 years. This show was originally commissioned by the International Conference on Forensics in Penetanguishene in 1993.

Are the logistics of touring very complicated?

Yes, it can be extremely complicated, from getting agreements in place, to engaging the actors and production staff, to determining what venue the show will play in, and arranging transportation and accommodation. Iris the Dragon, which was part of the Madness and Arts 2003 World Festival, toured in schools in tandem with a British theatre company. The production logistics of that were very complicated. We had a little boy who played the lead in Iris the Dragon who was being home schooled, and his mother went along on tour and ensured that he continued to get his schooling.

Are the shows put on as purely theatrical events, or is there a point at which the audience is engaged in dialogue?

Once again it depends on the show. With the musical Joy we didn’t have talk-back sessions with the audience, but with Vincent there is about 40 minutes of drama and then 40 minutes of discussion in which a police officer, a family member, a person with schizophrenia, and a mental health professional will sit on a panel and discuss the issues that are in the play. Then we open it up to the audience for a question-and-answer period.

What process do you use for choosing films for the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival?

We have a research coordinator who comes on in the spring and works with a programming committee for about five months. We have films sent to us for consideration by film-makers both nationally and internationally. We also look for films at other festivals. We go through a jury process in September where we choose our slate of films. We take each program and within that, match features and shorts together. We then begin developing panel discussions around the topics that are in that particular program.

Who would be on the jury?

We have people who have had direct experience with mental illness, people that work in film and people that work in the mental health field. We have a fairly broad range of people who will choose the work, all coming from different perspectives.

During the 10 days that the film festival runs, how many people come out?

About 1,500. Some of the films that we show are premieres, meaning that they have never been shown either locally, nationally or internationally. Sometimes we’ll find a film that has come out of the Toronto International Film Festival that is really appropriate for our festival. For example, four years ago we saw the film Shine [about pianist David Helfgott], so we put it up here before it had a theatrical release. That was an interesting experience because the audience loved it but the panelists didn’t. They tore the film apart, they really didn’t like it, but we had audience members standing up to applaud it. Some of the things the panelists criticized were the piano playing, the script (which one of the panelists felt had a lot of holes in it), and the way David’s illness was portrayed in the film — the fact that it was extremely difficult to determine what mental illness he had.

Is inaccurate portrayal of mental illness an ongoing problem in films?

Yes, it’s a huge problem. At our festival we try to balance the portrayals as best we can. We will not put up a film that reeks of stigmatization and stereotyping unless we put it up to discuss that particular issue within the context of the film. One of the highlights of the festival is the panel discussion which takes place after every film program — the fact that there is an interaction with the audience and an increase in mental health and addiction awareness through the films.

How long has Workman Theatre been involved with the visual arts?

At the moment we are in our fifth year of the Being Scene art exhibit, in which we present between 60 to 80 works of art from people who receive services from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The works are displayed at the Queen Street, Clarke Institute, and Addiction Research Foundation sites [in Toronto]. The year-long exhibit is open seven days a week to the general public, who can go on a self-guided tour with the help of a program guide available at each site. The show is juried by a professional artist, gallery owner and art educator who choose the works out of 300 to 400 submissions.

There has been a tremendous interest and growth in this show. In addition to the exhibits at the sites I mentioned, we had a six-month exhibit last at Queen’s Park, in the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario’s residence, and we’ve been invited back for another six months next year. We have an exhibit coming up with the Canadian Mental Health Association at the CBC Atrium during Mental Health Tune Up in May, and we are currently exhibiting work at the St. Lawrence Market Gallery. That exhibit will run for three months, from March through June 2004.

Where do the artists produce their work?

The majority of our artists work in isolation, producing their work at home. Some of the works we hang are quite large and those artists are working in very difficult, small spaces. One artist we work with, who is homeless, brings his artwork to us to go into the shows or to sell. People will give him old canvases so that he can paint over them. He carries them on his back and is driven to paint. He absolutely lives the lifestyle of a nomad. His work is quite spectacular and he’s been in several of our catalogues.

The new Jean Simpson Studio is going to provide an exciting alternative for artists like these who are producing their art under very difficult working conditions. Due to open in the spring of 2004 on the second-floor mezzanine in the Community Mall at the Queen Street site, the Jean Simpson Studio will house seven or eight artists at a time, with workspace available for a three-month period. With the Jean Simpson Studio they will have a fairly large area to work in. We have hired an artist-in-residence, Henry Benvenuti, and his role will be to provide support to the other artists working in the studio.

The studio is free for the artists, and the space is self-managed. Because of that, the artists will be able to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week if they want. There will be responsibilities they will have to take on in order to work in that space, but they can come and go as they please. The criteria for participation in the Jean Simpson Studio project include a willingness to share the responsibilities involved in the smooth running of the studio space, submission of a portfolio including sketchbooks and rough drawings for an admission selection process conducted by peers, and a desire to use the studio to explore a specific project that they would be unable to execute under their current working conditions.

What are your goals with the Workman Theatre Project and what are some of the barriers you struggle with?

We have two major goals. One is to increase public awareness of mental health and addiction problems through various artistic media, and the other is to provide artistic training, support, and employment within a creative environment for people who receive mental health and addiction services.

I’ve been working in the mental health field for 21 years and when I look at the barriers which are still there for our members I’m discouraged. Just recently I had an assessment for life insurance. During that assessment it became very clear that if I admitted that I suffered from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia I would not be eligible for life insurance. We have experienced that within our own company, trying to get health insurance for our staff. We are trying to fight the fight and yet I can see how difficult it would be to willingly disclose something that makes you unable to receive the same privileges as other people receive. Another barrier we face is the fact that at WTP we pay our members/artists for their work and this has a negative impact for those on ODSP [Ontario Disability Support Program]. It doesn’t work for our artists. One of them may have a painting they have done which they could sell, but if they do they stand to lose substantial amounts through their ODSP. Many of our members do not want to go off ODSP for fear they will get sick again and it will be more difficult to get back on. The system needs to be overhauled. I know there are people advocating for change, and I do think we will see change in the next five years. I am hopeful, but it makes trying to run a company like we do very difficult. You asked me what I hope to achieve, and it’s to continue our work, see some of these barriers removed and ensure that those who are making significant contributions to society, like our members/artists, are recognized.

For more information on the Workman Theatre Project, visit

Profile: Singing in the Streets

Trista Bassett was diagnosed four years ago with severe depression and anxiety. In her early 20s Trista did a lot of stage performing, but as the depression took hold she ended up taking her music to the streets. Workman Theatre Project has been her entree back into the world, an avenue to pursue her love of music. She is currently part of the Busking Program.

“It’s a little nerve-racking to be performing again, but it has really helped to bring me out of my depression a bit more — to do what I love. This is what I want to do with my life, so being accepted into the program was as if my music was being accepted and my talents were being recognized.”

What she wants to do with her music…

“I’ve always been a politically minded person, so I definitely want to convey some of my feelings about mental health issues through my music and hopefully change other people’s attitudes.”

Why her music is important…

“Performing is a huge part of my music for me. If I was just singing in my own home, or performing for friends, it wouldn’t be the same. Singing is the one thing that I can always do unless I am really really low with my depression. It’s the one thing I can do that brings me up.”

On what she wants to achieve…

“I don’t really have a long-term goal. I’m just trying to get through the day-to-day stuff. It hasn’t been very long since I’ve actually accepted this illness. I’ve been fighting against it, so now I’m working with my therapist. Being part of the Busking Program at WTP has really helped a lot with interaction with people. When passers-by give me a positive response, that really means a lot because my world is pretty isolated right now.”

Profile: A Journey on Canvas

Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in the early 1990s, Peter Smith had to drop out of the Ontario College of Art, and for five years he was not able to pursue his passion for painting because of his illness. He is a regular contributor to the Being Scene annual art exhibition produced by Workman Theatre Project.

“My painting is very important to me,” says Peter. “Even when I felt I wasn’t using all my faculties, when my illness made it impossible for me to access them, it was still important that I try. It gave me some sort of purpose beyond just being a consumer/survivor, a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical companies.”

On what he wants to achieve through his art…

“I don’t have a really hard manifesto with my work. My mental illness isn’t the theme that runs through it. Because of the symptoms I went through for many years, the hallucinations, things like that, it does bring a different experience to my work and I think sometimes that comes through and gives it an almost mythic type of persona. There’s a journey happening on my canvas, but you don’t know where it is going.”

On whether his art has changed since he was diagnosed…

“I think there’s been a natural progression. When you are starting out it’s a very frustrating process as much as it is an enjoyable process. Eventually you get to the point where you realize that there are no shortcuts. Generally if it’s not hard work there’s something wrong. And you just get used to the fact that it’s hard work and you start to enjoy the hard work. That’s when you do real art.”

On how selling his work affects his Ontario Disability Support Program payments…

“Well, it is a problem. I have a case worker and we have worked something out with the ODSP so that they average out my art income over the year. You might sell a painting and get $1,000 that month when you are actually only eligible to make an extra $200. But I might not sell anything more for the next six months, so now at the end of the year they take a look at my expenses and income and work it out then. You have to have a good case worker. I was lucky. For a client to go through the ODSP and try to figure things out for themselves, well you might as well check yourself back into the hospital.”

» Return to Network, Spring 2004 – Contents