Actors ride the wave of emotions in play about mental health

ST. STEPHEN – Stories from 14 people have been composited into 14 characters in the production of Riding the Waves with names like The Storyteller, The Magician, The Warrior and The Archaeologist.

The names are metaphors for the characters and the outcomes of their mental health challenges. Rob MacNeil and Chanel Gouchie are two of the actors in the production.

MacNeil began acting roughly 40 years ago and trained with Second City in Toronto. Much of his past work was comedy, though he did do some Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular, “which is not a terribly funny play,” he noted.

After being out of acting for about 20 years, he decided to get back into it after moving to New Brunswick and Riding the Waves is his first tread of the boards in his return. He plays The Archaeologist.

Gouchie caught the acting bug when she was about 16 and has performed in numerous productions, both lighter and more serious. She attended musical theatre school in British Columbia and worked with adult theatre groups throughout her career.

Gouchie acknowledges that this role is one of the heavier ones she has taken on and was concerned about how it would be received by the public.

“It’s been incredible, so far.”

Gouchie plays The Chameleon.

Preparing for a role like this has been difficult, both actors noted. They wanted to ensure they gave it the appropriate level of respect for the subject matter and the people who had the courage to come forward and tell their stories to the writers of the play.

“We wanted to do the role justice and go into it with a lot of care,” said Gouchie.

Gouchie noted that, day-to-day, everyone experiences their own struggles in some way with mental health. That personal experience helped her prepare for the role. She also relied on feedback from the directors who had met the people whose stories are being portrayed.

MacNeil relied, in part, on conversations he had with people he knows who are experiencing some of the same things as the people portrayed in Riding the Waves.

“I’ve had people in my life – my mom had depression – my character is bipolar and I’ve known a couple people in my life who have also been bipolar.”

MacNeil also did a lot of reading about other ways people deal with their mental health issues.

He preferred not to meet the people his character is based on, relating that it’s one thing to be portraying someone who may be in the audience but quite another if you actually know the person.

Gouchie is one of the few cast members who has met the person her character is based on. They shared a hug and some tears.

“It was a beautiful moment to be able to give that to them,” she said.

Gouchie’s paternal grandfather was schizophrenic and her father related to her that the production was portrayed very well given the weight of the subject matter.

MacNeil also recounted that people he has spoken with who have seen the play and who live with mental illness have said (the actors) are doing a good job and that feedback is incredibly gratifying.

Perspective is something that Gouchie has taken away from the role. She is better able to relate her own struggles with those of the people who are portrayed in the play.

“These people have gone through horrendous things and are still continuing to fight day in, day out and they’ve been brave enough to come forward and share their stories.”

She appreciates the vulnerability that those people have put upon themselves with their willingness to come forward.

“Just as the play has a goal to raise awareness, the play has reminded me that these issues are out there. You might have a lovely chat with a person in the grocery store and not realize their backstage is a lot different from what you see,” said MacNeil.

“It reminded me of just how common mental health challenges are.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 per cent of people will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their life. The Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health notes that, in any given year, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness and that by age 40, half will have or have had experienced mental illness.

MacNeil stated that mental illness is still one of those issues where there is a stigma attached.

Both MacNeil and Gouchie noted that the audience feedback has been terrific. Feedback has been positive and the production showed the necessary level of respect for the issue.

MacNeil went on to say that people he has spoken with have told him they leave the theatre thinking. A couple have said the production made them cry.

“I’m pleased that we can at least spark a discussion of this because the more people talk about it the easier it’s going to be to talk about it.”

Co-writer and director of the production, Peggy Fothergill, is thrilled with the cast that has been assembled for the production and how the performances have been carried off.

The mix of actors ranges from very experienced to complete newcomers.

“It’s everything for them emotionally and it’s exhausting for them,” said Fothergill.

One of the actors is a cook at the Clamdigger in Saint Andrews and this is his first time acting.

“He’s The King and he is just wonderful,” Fothergill enthused.

Performances are 7 p.m. Oct. 14 and 15 at St. Stephen High School. Tickets are $20 and available at The St. Croix Public Library, OK Tire, Cockburn’s Drug Store in Saint Andrews and PharmaChoice in St. George. All proceeds from the productions will go to the New Brunswick chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association for local programming.