‘Really terrifying… but also really freeing’: 4.48 Psychosis and Portraying Mental Illness Onstage

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Liz Whitbread performs in Theatre By The River’s production of 4.48 Psychosis. She is also rocking the shit out of those high-waisted shorts. Photo: Giovanni Navarro.

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.

Review: Rainbow Stage’s Shrek the Musical

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Carson Nattrass beltin’ the ogre blues. Image courtesy ChrisD.ca.

I’ve been going to Rainbow Stage since I was six years old. My first show was Big – The Musical. In the last few years, I’ve made a point of trying to catch their entire season. When I heard that they were going to perform Shrek, my first thought was: “That is a big show.”

I’d watched the pro-shot version of the Broadway show on Netflix, and it has got to be one of the largest shows of the last decade. Not only are there plethoras of costume changes, set pieces, cast members, and special effects, but there’s also knowing that you have to fill some of the theatre scene’s biggest shoes – Shrek was originally led by Brian D’Arcy James as the titular character and Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona.

But last night, I was reminded that nobody does big better than Rainbow. (I’m gonna stop saying that word now.)

I saw Ring of Fire, the first show Rainbow produced this year, and although I had a good time, it didn’t fulfill my theatre experience. I watched a group of talented musicians perform Johnny Cash songs, but it wasn’t a show. It felt more like a bio-concert. Rainbow’s done a few of these in the previous five seasons: joining Ring of Fire is also Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. I’m very aware that most of Winnipeg’s theatre season ticket holders are white-haired, but these bio-musicals are something I can experience by myself, listening to a CD and reading Wikipedia.

Shrek, on the other hand, gave me everything I could hope for in a theatre experience: wonderful actors, a moving story, a laugh every now and then, and performances that made me rise to my feet.

Carson Nattrass was an excellent Shrek, mainly because of his impeccable comedic timing, able to ad-lib and feel out the audience’s reactions. If a Shrek doesn’t know how to do this, the show could ultimately fall flat. The point of the show is to be able to make fun of itself, and Nattrass led by example.

Heather McGuigan was a perfect Princess Fiona, never missing a high-pitched note and never letting her male counterpart steal the spotlight when they had a scene together. The two are balanced in such a way that makes you see them as a pair from the moment they share their first scene together.

The only thing that took me out of the story was the microphone problems that seem to plague Rainbow Stage at every show I attend. Sometimes, I chalk it up to being there early in the run (like missing cues when I saw the preview of Les Mis last season). But this was the sixth (seventh?) performance of Shrek, and there were still mics too loud and young Shrek’s mic wasn’t turned on at all for his first (and longest) appearance at the beginning of the show. The mixing will always be an issue, thanks to its amphitheatre atmosphere, but it’s no excuse for why cues can’t be followed. It was so noticeable that audience members began chatting about it during the show.

When a movie (or book or other source) is made into a musical, I have to ask myself whether it was necessary to transfer it onto the stage. When Shrek was made fifteen years ago, the creators must have thought that a movie was the best medium for this story. Did it need to be lengthened and transformed into what it is now?

Ultimately, I wasn’t able to answer that question. I remember seeing Shrek in the theatre, but there were children there that night that may have been experiencing that story for the first time. People there who weren’t expecting the Donkey = ass jokes, and who don’t quote “you cut me real deep, Shrek” on a regular basis. Whether it was necessary or not might be irrelevant, because this show works. The magic of the story is perfect on stage, and the production values weren’t dimmed at all from the Great White Way. Rainbow Stage is certainly living up to their new mantra, “definitely Broadway, uniquely Winnipeg.”

Shrek the Musical runs at Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park until August 31. You can get tickets at RainbowStage.ca.

Rating: 4.5/5

Please Don’t Bring Your Baby to the Theatre and Other Tips & Etiquette

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Patti LuPone will kick you out of a theatre without hesitation. Shown here starring in Company in 2011. Image courtesy LA Times.

This summer, a mother with a small baby was denied access to a performance of Sister Act at Rainbow Stage, despite the theatre’s very clear no-babes-in-arms policy listed on their website and their tickets. Most of the online comments I read agreed with my opinion, which is that this is ridiculous and that the baby should stay at home. Being a dedicated theatre patron, I thought I would offer my advice to make your theatre experience the best one possible.

Leave your small children at home.
To begin with a topical and (I hope) most obvious tip, please do not bring your small children to a performance. Some theatres in New York ban all children under 7. A good rule of thumb is that if they don’t receive good school comments about staying in their seat, they’re not ready to sit down for three hours in a row. If your child isn’t in school yet, they better be trained. Do not, under any circumstances, bring a baby to the theatre. Even if it’s The Lion King. Save yourself $90 and watch the movie on repeat at home. They’re not going to remember it anyway. If you’re wondering about the content of the show, check your local theatre’s website or call them to find out their policy. If you really can’t be separated from your child for that long, your mind will not be on the show anyway and you’ve wasted your money.

Dress appropriately.
It’s not necessary to dress up in evening gowns and tuxedos to go to the theatre anymore. You should, however, put some thought into the way that you dress. It shows respect to the theatre and to the actors. A good outfit is usually a pair of dress pants and a nice dress or polo shirt or blouse. A sundress with a cardigan is also nice. Shorts with a nice T-shirt are okay if it’s an outdoor theatre. Think job interview. It’s also important to go easy on the perfume or cologne. Some people have sensitivities to strong scents and this could give them a serious allergic reaction or at the very least, give them a headache and ruin the experience for them.

Put your phone away.
I’ve noticed this more in American theatres, but the glare from the screen of a phone is the most annoying and distracting thing in a performance possible. The audience behind and beside you can see it. The actors can see it. Madonna attended a performance of Hamilton in its run at the Public Theatre and was denied access backstage after the show because she was on her phone the whole time. Actor Jonathan Groff had some choice words to say about that. Please, leave your phone in your pocket or purse for the time that actors are on stage. You don’t want to feel the wrath of Patti.

Don’t sing along.
I’m pretty sure I could get up on a stage and perform the entire songbook from RENT without hesitation. That doesn’t mean I should. Yes, I know you know all the words to “Defying Gravity,” but if I paid to see the actress playing Elphaba to sing it, that’s who I want to hear sing it. Please, unless invited to (such as in Hedwig‘s “Wig in a Box” or “Midnight Radio”), refrain from singing along.

Have compassion for your fellow audience members.
Recently, at a performance of The King and I in New York, an autistic audience member was “yelping” during the show and other theatregoers were getting upset. Kelvin Moon Loh, who stars in the show, came out with a wonderful statement that said: “I ask you — when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?” This is not the same as fussy babies or wearing too much perfume. This individual is a member of our society, the same as anyone else, and has a place in the theatre community.

Enjoy yourself.
I can’t tell you how many humming-and-hawing husbands I’ve sat beside. Listen, buddy. You’re paying some good money to watch some talented people do what they do best. Relax. You can ask my fiancee — who used to dislike theatre — about how I’ve turned him into a convert (sometimes he texts me about how “Music of the Night” has been in his head all day. He knows a way to a girl’s heart). Don’t be stubborn about it, let yourself enjoy it. My father will tell you unashamedly how much he likes The Sound of Music. It’s not emasculating. It’s making you cultured. Sighing throughout the entire performance is not helping anyone.

Follow my tips and I promise that you and all of your fellow theatregoers will have an excellent experience at your next musical or play.