I met up with writer/performer Em Glasspool and director Linda Kash at Black Honey to talk about Glasspool’s first one-person, autobiographical play, Wreck Wee Em. Amidst the din of midday conversations and clinking of plates, they shared their thoughts about the joys and perils of creating theatre that evokes the harrowing experiences of psychosis and trauma from a deeply personal perspective.
To my mind, the way we talk about mental illness is wholly inadequate. I hate Bell Let’s Talk’s patronizing, self-serving, insipid invitation, as if a heart-to-heart and a little understanding could chase away the black dog. I hate the word survivor, as if PTSD is something you can really put behind you, as if we weren’t all giving it our best shot. I hate hearing people call their substance battle a blessing, as though it is also not a curse. There is almost nothing on the subject that isn’t brimming with false hope, platitudes, or misplaced blame.
With Wreck Wee Em, Glasspool has unflinchingly jumped into the deep end with a work that is raw, dark, and funny.
“The slippery slope on that is, it needs to be theatrical, it needs to be entertaining; it’s not entrail splaying. We’re both very cognizant of sentimentality,” says Kash. “It’s a really honest look at a really difficult time in someone’s life, but Em is an artist and a writer, so it’s really a writer’s perspective.”
“People think they know the story but they don’t,” Glasspool tells me.
The confessional genre of theatre walks a very fine line as it addresses cringeworthy material. Humour is one way to handle it—think Richard Pryor or Spalding Gray. Glasspool takes cues from standup comedy and has a fearless penchant for slapstick. With a natural stage presence that is equal parts scrappy and vulnerable, they have the tools to lay some hard truth on us.
“I wouldn’t suggest it for everybody,” says Glasspool. “I have all kinds of craft behind it. And I’m really good at picking good people to work with.”
Glasspool came to Trent in 1994, got involved with the arts community, and never left. Actor, writer, director, and musician, their credits include artistic director of Mysterious Entity Theatre, mentor at Rock Camp for Girls, and local champion for diversity as founder of Courage Peterborough and performances in events such as Arts-Ability: Taking the Stage. They have directed original full-length plays, including Tara Beagan’s Beside Herself and Kate Story and Mysterious Entity’s The Blind Eye. Their monthly incubator Script Club has been instrumental in developing scripts like as Algonquin Highway by Wyatt Lamoureux, which was performed at the Toronto Fringe Festival, and Lester Alfonso’s film Birthmark, recently screened at the ReFrame Film Festival.
Stage and technical management by the inimitable Esther Vincent alongside Wes Ryan rounds out the production, with lighting design by Esther Vincent, set design by Gabe Robinson, and sound design by Jill Staveley.
Glasspool originally met the legendary Tomson Highway at a writing workshop hosted by Indigenous arts collective, O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk, and summoned the courage to ask him for feedback on an early version of Wreck Wee Em. He suggested they rewrite the play 13 times to flesh out the multiple themes he identified within that early draft. “I see an emergency. Write the play as if everything is an emergency. I see water, write everything about water, everything about pirates, everything about piglets,” he told them.
Clearly theatre is one of the only ways to tackle this complex subject. “There are no words to describe the horror of that; it’s outside of any other experience,” says Glasspool.
They ponder what it means when your therapist tells you that you are resistant to treatment. They describe the surreal subterranean world of a psychiatric ward with its absurd abundance of puzzles, out of tune pianos, and crushing boredom. (For the record and astoundingly, the Peterborough Regional Health Centre psychiatric ward has no art therapy program in place.)
“The only real way to deal with it is, let’s get to work,” says Kash.
“Let’s tell the story,” adds Glasspool. “There is a little bit of hope in the telling.”
While doing some dangerous boundary-pushing, they have also employed a process of care to keep both Glasspool and the audience safe. “It’s also accountable,” says Kash. “It’s not making an excuse.
“It is about the navigation, it is about the way you struggle through this, but it’s an Alice in Wonderland extraordinary story. So when you’re talking about psychosis you’re talking highly theatrical tensions here,” says Kash. “But this is real. So the audience has to stay in the realness of what Em actually saw, heard, felt, believed. And it’s extremely courageous.”
“It’s not going to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow,” says Glasspool.
“It can’t be,” Kash adds, “because this is a lifelong identification and acceptance of a way of being… that everyone navigates through to different degrees.”
Wreck Wee Em runs September 27 to 29 at 8pm at Evans Contemporary, with a special ‘relaxed run’ on September 30 at 2pm. Click here for more info.
Photos by Andy Carroll
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