You can go to any fringe festival in the world, throw a stone, and hit a poster for a comedic show. I promise. Fringe is often a time for improv-ers and sketch-ers to stretch their legs for a ten-day or week-long performance schedule and roll around in audiences looking to have a good time on a weekend. And although that’s all fun and good and you can definitely find quality theatre productions while wading through knee-deep pools of laughs, fringe festivals are about more than that. They’re about experimenting – for both the theatre companies and the audiences. Trying new things, going to something that might make you uncomfortable, or seeing a show on a subject you know nothing about. That’s what Fringe is – getting out there.
I had the joy and privilege to sit down with the luminous Liz Whitbread (and you should too, given the opportunity) about this very thing, regarding her performance in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, about to begin at the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival. 4.48 does not have a linear storyline, nor is the script written like a traditional script (“One page is just blank. It’s part of the script, but it’s blank,” she told me). Whitbread performs by herself, with the audience surrounding three-fourths of the “walls,” and – oh, yes, the author of the play killed herself shortly after finishing it. 4.48 is Kane’s swan song.
Whitbread said she “wouldn’t call it [Kane’s] suicide note,” but that kind of thing still carries a lot of weight, especially when you’re alone onstage. “It’s unfortunate that [the play] is in this context, but you can’t ignore it,” said Whitbread. “Because of the way it’s written, it’s easier to separate myself from the words. It’s affecting, but because of the writing, not the context.”
Whitbread is a Winnipegger, but now lives in Toronto, where she just performed in 4.48 (the last performance was Saturday) at the Fringe there. She was last seen in the River City as part of the ensemble in the WSO and Rainbow Stage’s South Pacific in April. She said doing a one-woman show is a little different. “In some ways, it’s really terrifying. If I forget a line, no other actor can save me. I can’t look over and be like, ‘give me the line!’ But it’s also really freeing. If I forget a line, I can go to the next part of the script I know. I’m in control of this.”
The staging is different in Winnipeg than it was in Toronto – with a venue change comes a staging change. The audience will be seated in a horseshoe-shape around Whitbread. “I’m speaking directly to the audience, I can see the audience,” she said. It’s vulnerable being up there alone. “I had to learn to be comfortable with having silence, and be comfortable with having laughter. I have to let them enjoy it, let myself enjoy it.”
I asked her, straight up: why should people come to this likely-depressing show when they could go see some improver make poop jokes instead? “It’s a really important – small, but important – discussion on mental illness and how it’s portrayed,” she said. “It portrays mental illness in a really personal way, an open and blunt way. It doesn’t dance around anything.” That’s a conversation worth having. “This is what it could be like,” for someone with mental illness, she said. But mental health never fits a specific mold. “Not everyone will identify with it, and that’s okay.”
“Sarah Kane had such a revolutionary idea of what theatre should look like,” she said. “If people want to challenge themselves, this is a good show to see.”
Theatre by the River’s 4.48 Psychosis opens on Wednesday, July 19, and runs throughout the Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival, playing venue #11, Red River College. Check out showtimes and a venue map here. See you at the Fringe.