By Tracey Mitchell

Poster asking 'are you/me/we/doctors/institutions/perceptions etc. malajusted?'

Promotional poster for 'maladjusted'

In March, 2013, Vancouver’s Theatre for Living (formerly Headlines Theatre), mounted maladjusted, an innovative ‘Forum Theatre’ production that engaged audiences in the task of finding solutions to humanize the mental health system. The production was the result of weeks of intense creative collaboration between professional joker and director, David Diamond, and workshop participants and cast members, all of whom had experience with the mental health system, whether as “patients,” as “caregivers,” or both. 191 people applied to be part of the production, 24 were part of the 6-day workshop process to create the play and 6 were in the final cast that rehearsed for a few more weeks before beginning the two-week run of the play. In a 2015 remount, the Theatre for Living took the production on tour to 26 BC and Alberta communities, with grassroots organizations sponsoring each of the events. Many of these shows were collaborative efforts between First Nations and non-First Nations organizations.

Note: Colin Ross replaced Martin Filby as Jack in Maladjusted. 

Colin Ross was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as ADHD at a young age and has been struggling with mental illness his entire life. One of the largest struggles Colin has faced is dealing with the emotional trauma that has stemmed as a direct result from being ill. Colin benefits from the use of medication as it enables him to “take a little control of my life back”. He recognizes that there is a lot of emotional damage that exists that no pill could ever fix. Colin firmly believes that with more support for people who have trouble connecting with the world, we would see dramatic change, not just in patients’ wellbeing, but in the lives of those surrounding them as well.

* This role originally created by Martin Filby

This format makes maladjusted different from the other projects profiled in this Survivor Culture exhibit, for the production was created in collaboration with survivors and ally organizations. The invitation to do the work came out of a long relationship Theatre for Living has with people in health care as well as consumers on the ground, who indicated that they were concerned by the increased mechanization and dehumanization of mental health services. Theatre for Living uses fictional stories drawn from the lived experiences of participants in the workshops, but avoids telling any one person's specific story. Because all of the actors in maladjusted played characters to whom they could relate but who were not themselves, the play is neither psychoanalysis nor therapy, but rather, it is uses the theatre as a platform to rehearse behavioral, social change. The work of David Diamond and Theatre for Living is an outgrowth of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed, adapted to include a “systems view” of the world. Maladjusted is one of many experientially-inspired social issue productions presented by Theatre for Living over more than 35 years of operation. Of this collaboration, cast member Erin Arnold said: 

I feel as participants, we were really free to come up with the concept, with the ideas, with our lived experiences, with the imagery that we created with our bodies, drawings, all sorts of things, sounds, those were all from our lived experience. What David helped us with was putting those pieces together, assisting us with the sequence of things, really perfecting moments, but the story and the creation was the cast and the community at large, so I don't feel that it was a top down process, it was really collaborative.

'maladjusted', Finale Performance, March 28th 2015
A discussion of 'maladjusted' featuring Erin Arnold, one of the actors in the play

Aside from being co-created by people with lived experience, maladjusted is interesting because it is a Legislative Theatre production. An evening at the performance involves audience members, referred to as “spectactors,” watching the play for about 30 minutes. The play interweaves a number of different stories, illuminating different aspects of the dysfunctions within the mental health system, builds into a crisis, and stops, offering no solutions. Next, audience members are shown several scenes again and invited to stop the action at any point that they see an opportunity to intervene in the action and create safety for the characters. Once an audience member yells, “Stop!” they take the place of whichever character they choose and then play the scene again, incorporating their idea. The rest of the cast responds to the intervention as their characters in that moment. Some of the interventions result in significant changes for the better for the characters, others don't, and occasionally, interventions even lead to worse results. But having some idea of what has worked or not worked in the theatre gives us an idea of what might work or not work in “real life.” Thus, the theatre is “a rehearsal for reality.”

Legislative Theatre means that the play goes one step beyond interventions made by members of the audience, periodically asking the audience for policy ideas based on what they're seeing on stage. These policy ideas are recorded and compiled into a final report by a Community Scribe. This Community Action Report thus transforms a sometimes-raucous grassroots theatre production into a report with clear policy recommendations for human-centred mental health care. The 2013 maladjusted report identified three key themes in the play and the interventions, themes that speak to the failure of community mental health to deliver on the promise of the deinstitutionalization era:

  • the misdiagnosis of people – in this case young people - and the debilitating effects of heavy yet unnecessary prescriptions;
  • the concurrence of homelessness and mental illness, where lack of appropriate treatment leads to further trauma;
  • the breakdown of a mental health system that struggles to keep the mechanics of the system working while losing sight of human connection.

View the Final Reports and Community Action Report for the 'maladjusted' production.