Re-examining the stigma of mental illness through local theatre

St. Catharines-based Essential Collective Theatre has made it their primary goal to bring quality Canadian productions to Niagara and will be doing so once again in their upcoming performances of Joan MacLeod’s, The Valley.

Credit: The Brock Press/Brittany Brooks

Actors Jason Cadieux and Andew Pimento act out a fight scene from
The Valley. Credit: The Brock Press/Brittany Brooks

The mandate of the Essential Collective Theatre (ECT) is to produce contemporary Canadian Theatre and to foster the work of playwrights in the region. On an annual basis, the company sets out to perform a work written by a local playwright and to also draw something from the Canadian canon in order to showcase the connection to the Niagara Region and the rest of Canadian theatre.

Monica Dufault, the new artistic director of ECT emphasizes the mandate of the company and the importance of representing Canadian theatre both on a local and national level. This year she has chosen to produce and direct The Valley due to the concern it places on the topic of mental illness, a topic of the utmost importance.

“The Valley resonates the most profoundly with me because of the timely nature of the theme,” said Dufault. “It deals with mental illness, but it deals with it at a university and as an instructor at Brock, I see the enormous pressures that students are under to perform, to keep their scholarships and all of those sorts of things.  I think Joan has really found this compelling story about a first year student who is beginning to experience these pressures and doesn’t know what’s happening.”

Joan MacLeod is a Canadian playwright from Vancouver, BC, best known for her plays, Amigo’s Blue Guitar and The Hope Slide.  Dufault commends MacLeod on the humour she incorporates into her plays that also exists in The Valley. The play contains elements of humour while still maintaining and respecting the serious nature of the plot.

Dufault went on to explain the character of the police officer that also plays a major role in the play and how his character forces the audience to rethink their own preconceptions about mental illness. This includes how it’s seen by the law and how police officers deal with people suffering from a mental illness. It’s a play that critically examines the issue on a personal level within an individual, while remaining relatable to a wide audience. It not only examines the thoughts of the person with the mental illness but also those of the people in the character’s life.  “We’re really trying to look for ways to engage our community.  We look at how we’re able to use theatre to create conversations, to look at important social issues,” said Dufault. “Mental illness is such a prevalent issue among university students and I’m so glad we can put on a play that really tackles the issue.” The audience can expect to be involved in the production an engrossing world that actively affects the realistic characters.  Rather than create a separation between the audience and performance, the spectators will be at the centre of the production in order to be more engaged with the actors.  In addition to an exciting performance, Joan MacLeod will be coming to St. Catharines to watch the play as well as speak at a forum taking place in the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre Nov. 17. The forum is a free community event put on by the Department of Dramatic Arts, looking at how mental illness is portrayed in art. The forum will also feature Cindy McDonald, a Police Foundations instructor at Niagara College, who will speak on how law enforcement is adapting to deal with victims of mental illnesses.

MacCleod will also being doing a reading of one of her new plays on Nov. 18 before the 8:00 p.m. performance of The Valley in the downtown courthouse theatre. She and the cast will participate in a question and answer period immediately following the performance. On Nov. 19 she will be a guest speaker in two Dramatic Arts classes at Brock.

This is the last season in which the Essential Collective Theatre will be performing at the Sullivan Malhoney Courthouse Theatre as they will soon be relocating to the downtown Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines. Dufault encourages students and the community alike to see the ECT in its last season at the Courthouse while they still can.

The ECT’s production of The Valley will be followed this spring by, Wings of Wax, written by local playwright Lindsay Price, another play featuring a character trying to manoeuvre their way to adulthood. So stay tuned for more exciting performances from the ECT.

The Valley will run from Saturday Nov. 15 – Sunday Nov. 30 at the Sullivan Malhoney Courthouse Theatre located at 101 King Street, St. Catharines. Tickets are $20-25 dollars and can be purchased online on ticketweb. For more information and for specific dates and times visit

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