Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Nikki Sheppy
The Mythical Man
Runs until October 4
New Dance Theatre
CellarDoor is doing something completely unique. The for-profit theatre company is out to prove something to audiences by writing and producing only original work using nothing but Calgary talent - talent which principals Jesse Heffering and James Thompson say is considerable.
Their season-opener, The Mythical Man, is a love story in which a 15-year-old girl falls for Nicholas, a 29-year-old oil executive whose life is being destroyed by the onset of schizophrenia.
According to writer Heffering, the play is based on a counter-intuitive concept he first encountered in The Divided Self, a seminal book on schizophrenia by Scottish psychoanalyst R.D. Laing.
"It was the beginning of an empathetic description," says Heffering. "The book explains that one of the states of being for schizophrenics is not having a self. They don't think that they exist. They think that they're dead. They think that they're robots. They think that you are more real than they."
Heffering drew his title from something a man living with schizophrenia said to him that tied in well with Laing's ideas. The man claimed to be a mythical man - something not quite real.
In writing the play, one of the greatest challenges Heffering faced was the need to be completely responsible towards his subject matter. His work with the Schizophrenia Society challenged his own perceptions about the illness so that he could challenge ours.
"I can't make schizophrenia the way I want it to be to suit the play. I need to do the research."
And what research revealed is that the disorder is widely misunderstood. A self-abusive illness that usually involves harmful hallucinations, schizophrenia is frequently confused with a repressive disorder known as multiple personality. Schizophrenics talk to themselves, suffer psychotic insights and may not even know they have it. The results can be disastrous.
"Forty per cent of people who are schizophrenic attempt suicide," says Heffering. "It makes you kill yourself, which is terrifying. The voices that you're hearing - which aren't your thoughts but actually audio hallucinations - are telling you to jump off the roof: 'Jump off the roof, man. You're not going to die. Jump off the roof. You're God. You're Jesus.'"
But for people with schizophrenia, talk like this is not the fabric of a play; it's their life - which is why Heffering did so much research in the first place.
"I've incorporated the types of things schizophrenics say these voices actually say to them. When you watch the play, none of it is arbitrary. This is as honest a presentation as we can do."
The acid-test for Heffering will be audience response to the play.
"Your audience is your judge, and for me, the audience for this play is actually one person that I met at the Schizophrenia Society: Dean, a man who lives with schizophrenia. My question was: Is the play true? I asked him for a response, and what he wrote was so powerful because it was coming from someone who lives with the illness. I realized that that was my audience right there."
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