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The Life of Me: An Interview with Rachel Manning

Network, Spring 2004

The Life of Me is a documentary film that focuses on two actors, George Vukojevic and Rachel Manning, as they struggle to overcome their own fears and challenges to produce a play that was performed at the finale of the Madness and Arts 2003 World Festival. At times in the documentary, it is almost impossible to believe that these rehearsals will ever result in a positive outcome. George struggles to ignore the voices in his head and learn his lines — with little success for the most part. Rachel has her own difficulties to face. A promising actor, it all slipped away from her as she fought a losing battle with depression. This could be her chance to make up for all the lost years. So much is at stake for both of them.

Against all odds, the final play, entitled In the Room, was an overwhelming success, both in terms of audience response, and in the strength that George and Rachel were able to draw from their ability to dig deep and do what had to be done when it really counted. That night, says Rachel, was “a golden performance.”

How did you become involved in this production?

I’ve been a member of the Workman Studio for the last three years, and I’d done some small bits and pieces with them. They were looking for two actors to do this, and Lisa Brown [founder/artistic producer] knew I had a long history of theatre and acting and suggested me to Ed Roy, the director. He basically just met with me and asked me if I’d like to do this, it really wasn’t like an audition. It came at a wonderful moment for me. It was a breaking point in my life. A time to get past all the years of mental health problems and other difficulties. It gave me the opportunity to focus and get back into theatre arts and acting. It was a bit of a challenge at first because it was the first real thing I’d done in ten years. But it was a tremendous success.

Rachel, how much of the story in the documentary is your story and how much did you create for the play?

That’s interesting because what Ed had us do was really improv. He asked us to create characters, and I think what was happening was that although I didn’t consciously relate the character I created to my life, there were things that mirrored it. In my life I had come through a couple of years of ups and down. I was in the hospital. I had lived outside of the house in different places and I was just getting back on my feet, emotionally, mentally, all that kind of stuff, and some of that crept into my character for the play. It paralleled my life. So it wasn’t that I was writing about myself, but I was using some of the things that I had gone through.

So did Ed actually write the script based on things that you and George came up with? A communal creative script with him having final control?

Yes. The first time we got together we just sat around and talked and I kept thinking to myself, “What are we doing here? I thought this was going to be a show with lines.” I had no idea at that point that it was going to be a collaborative process.

In the documentary you say, “Is it crazy to have this mean so much to me?” How much did the play mean?

In some ways it did feel crazy feeling so strongly about the play. I trained as an actress for many years in high school, and then at Young People’s Theatre and Second City. I took voice classes. After high school I studied in New York. Now here’s this little play….

Was that when you started to be aware that things weren’t right, when you were in New York?

I was suffering from great depression before I went to New York. I think going there just made it snowball. It was hard because I didn’t know anybody there and it’s a tough city. I arrived two weeks before acting classes started and shared a flat with another woman who needed a roommate. She was a little older and we got along but it wasn’t like we were friends. I would go out walking and be gone all day and forget to eat, my mind was somewhere else, and it just kept on like that. I was lonely. I did really well at the classes and I was quite successful in the shows, but when I came back to Toronto I couldn’t go on. I really needed help. But I didn’t get it at that time. Then I got my own apartment and got into the bar business and ten years went by. Finally one day I woke up and said, “What am I doing? I’m wasting my life here,” and that’s when I discovered Workman Theatre. It was a great way for me to get started again, but as I said it was difficult for me. I had trained so hard, I had done shows at a professional level, and all of a sudden here I am putting my whole life into this one little performance. It was kind of embarrassing for me to make such a big deal of it. But the end result made me so proud. And the feedback… people were just floored by what we had done. Even though it wasn’t a huge production it was something important. Working with Workman Theatre has given me an opportunity to do so much more than act. Workman isn’t just about theatre, it’s about people, people with problems. I did a performance calledShow on the Road with Workman, and we took it around to the wards and performed for the patients. That kind of thing gives you a perspective on what you can do with your art as far as contributing to people and society.

George says at one point in the documentary, “The stakes are high” and intimates that he can’t afford to mess up. How high were the stakes for you?

The stakes were high for me in the sense that I was really very worried. I didn’t know if it was going to work. I really liked the piece and I wanted it to work but I was scared that it wouldn’t go on after all the months and months of preparation.

So for you, even if this hadn’t worked, hadn’t been a success, it wouldn’t have affected how you felt about acting. You’d still be out there doing what you do best?

Yes I would, but with the minus of having something that’s really like a medal behind me. Every time you finish a show you get a sense of accomplishment, but this was even more. It was one performance that was just golden and irreplaceable.

What made it so golden?

Well, I think first of all the piece was brilliant, what Ed wrote. I think also, after all the talking and all the struggling, here we were, two actors on stage with none of the garbage of what was going on in our lives there, doing what we do, or what we want to do, or what we can do. It was also the way we all collaborated, how it came together, how at a low moment in my life, and in George’s, someone phoned each of us up and said, “Hey, how about doing this?” I had no idea it was going to be so big. I had no idea that it was going into Madness and Arts. I think the other thing that made it so special was because the play was about real issues in life. It was an original piece written about real people, their situations and struggles, and we were a part of making that script happen.

Do you feel differently about your craft of acting, what you want to achieve with it now, than you did before you were diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

You know it’s funny, I’ve been thinking about that lately. When I finished the Workman project I was really revved up to forcefully get back into acting. Now it’s been a year and I know I need to focus on keeping healthy and keeping a clear mind, and acting kind of isn’t the first thing. I’m still ploughing away at it, but because I have so much time in between each thing I do I lose the trust in myself that I can do it. Also, because I am getting older, I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket. I’m not saying that acting is going to be the rest of my life. Right now I am in a position where I have the opportunity to do some theatre, which doesn’t pay great, but I don’t know how good I am. I get people telling me I’ve got a lot of talent and I should go for it, but I don’t know. I think it’s funny because when I was in worse shape mentally than I am now it came more easily, but when you calm down and deal with your reality, getting up and acting is a very strange, foreign feeling. I’ve been working for the last few years on trying to maintain stability with who I am, then suddenly I am acting and I have to pretend to be someone else.

So you’re saying it’s kind of a pretend game again and you are trying to get out of playing pretend?

Exactly. My last production in high school I played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker and it was fabulous, but I was a mess. I was so locked into character in the play that on the final show when the whole cast was backstage in the hallway, cheering and laughing, I was in the dressing room bawling my eyes out because I didn’t know what to do with myself. Where do I go now? It’s like having this wicked love affair and then it’s over and you have to move on and find another one. I’m pretty emotional by nature, aside from having had mental health issues, so it’s hard for me to ride that roller-coaster. It used to be that my mania would catch up, now it’s not the mania. I get on a high because things are going so well and then something has to give. It’s normal human emotion.

It must be difficult for anyone who performs to deal with the kind of adulation you get on stage, and then deal with an equally bad low once the audience has left. Is that an additional difficulty for someone with a mental illness to cope with?

Yes, it’s an incredible letdown because all of a sudden you are in your real life. And if you don’t have a life…. I once had an acting teacher tell me, “You can’t just have this, you have to have a real life too.”

And that’s what you’ve recognized? You love acting but you have to develop a real life too?

Absolutely. I have to have my life in order. I know for myself when I am doing a show that is all I’m talking about, or that’s all people are asking me about. But when I’ve finished no one is interested. I have to be able to live that real life in addition to acting. The Workman Theatre is fabulous and they really gave me back something that I don’t know if I could have achieved on my own. I might have, but it would have taken much longer. Even though I am doing other theatre projects now, I would still like to work with them.

In the documentary your mother says, “When you were ill I wondered whether you were still in there.” I know a lot of people when they are diagnosed with a mental illness feel they have lost their identity, they become the illness. Do you feel that your acting enabled you to regain your identity and enabled other people to see you have an identity apart from your mental illness?

Absolutely. And the night we performed I was me again. When I walked off that stage I was more myself than I had felt in a long long time. I had about 25 people come and see me do that play because it was such a huge deal in my life, and they knew that I had had many years of stuff going on. And you know it wasn’t just my mom wondering if I was still in there. When I was ill I didn’t feel I was there. I was alone for many years because of my illness but now I wasn’t hiding anymore. I was up on a stage in front of people. I couldn’t hide, so when I came off the stage I was open. I was me. I was wanting to make contact with people. And I had great talks with people. People who didn’t know me came up to say thank you. If you are a big movie star maybe you expect that, but this was different, this was people who were genuinely thanking me for giving them something. And it made me realize what art is about: it’s about giving people something. You are giving people a thought or a feeling whether they are looking at a painting or watching something you are presenting. It’s a gift you are giving. They are experiencing something through what you are portraying. Actually, after we showed the documentary one woman stood up and said, “I think there is someone else here who needs to be acknowledged and that’s Rachel’s mum.” The documentary is touching lives just like the play did because even if it’s not you who has a mental illness, it might be your child, or a family member, or a friend. People see themselves in there somewhere, and that’s what art does, it touches people.

» Return to Network, Spring 2004 – Contents