In recent years, the Canadian theatre scene has seen a budding trend towards creating experiences that seek to create a more inclusive environment for show-goers of all stripes. Relaxed performances – sometimes referred to “sensory-friendly performances” – were originally designed to provide a more accommodating space for those on the autism spectrum and living with Tourette’s syndrome. In practice, this approach has proved to provide an experience conducive to a wide range of people who benefit from a relaxed theatre environment, including those living with anxiety.
In late September, local gallery Evans Contemporary hosted one such performance. A one-person act, Wreck Wee Em centers on local performer, playwright, and musician, Em Glasspool’s experience surrounding mental illness, addiction, and the Canadian health services system.
Under the relaxed performance model, noises and movements from audience members were welcomed, and a designated quiet area was featured for those who needed to step out mid-performance. This deviation from the often-rigid standards of traditional theatre served particularly well in this context, as Glasspool’s performance involved frequent audience engagement throughout the hour-long set.
These converging approaches, combined with the intimate atmosphere provided by Evans, served a twofold purpose: not only did the space allow for the inclusion of those who may not feel comfortable within the confines of a typical theatre set, but the play’s openness also allowed for the performer to immerse attendees into the performer’s lived experience: a disquieting reality faced by many but that is seldom discussed to the extent that it ought to be.
This model also allowed Glasspool to sporadically adjust spatial and thematic boundaries throughout the show. As such, they physically absorbed themselves within the crowd as quickly as they were able to return back into the minimalist stage set, allowing for frequent shifts between moments of sharp self-reflection regarding drug abuse and trauma to lighthearted quips and jokes pointed directly at the audience.
While much of the subject matter was serious, Glasspool’s approach was, above all, one of openness and humor. During the hour-long set, it was not uncommon for something as harrowing as a monologue regarding the detrimental cycle between alcoholism and trauma to be broken by an upbeat acoustic ballad about Glasspool’s prior drug use. Sparring dialogues with a lamp bearing the likeness of a certain 20th century psychoanalyst were frequent. As such, director Linda Kash took special care to ensure audience members knew that while this show dealt with heavy themes of psychological turmoil, there was no need to “be aFreud” to laugh along.
The engaging and jarring nature of Glasspool’s performance cumulated to invoke profound feelings of connectivity. To those living outside the bounds of their impacts, addiction and mental illness are issues that can too-easily be viewed through the callous lens of passing judgment and scorn. These narratives serve to marginalize those most undeserving of their harm. Wreck Wee Em serves as a reminder that these are fundamentally human issues. They require the warmth and support of community, and those most important to us. It is also a testament to strength of those who are able to not only persist in the face of mounting adversity, but to also share their stories through art, education, and kindness.