U of O alumna-directed play focuses on students dealing with mental illness

As the spotlight shone on Naomi, the lone performer onstage, she drifted around the stage with a candle in her hands and spoke to the audience of her family’s history of mental illness and suicide, specifically focusing on her great-grandmother.

This powerful introduction to (off) Balance, a play presented by TACTICS at the Arts Court Theatre which premiered on Nov. 13, set the stage for the rest of the production.

The play follows writer and performer Naomi Tessler’s real-life experience dealing with mental health issues during her freshman year at the University of British Columbia.

(off) Balance was directed by University of Ottawa alumna Bronwyn Steinberg, who is also the artistic director and series curator of TACTICS, a local theatre season for independent productions. The TACTICS model allows independent companies to produce together, helping them afford larger spaces and materials needed for more elaborate productions.

(off) Balance will be showing at the Arts Court Theatre until Nov. 21. After some showings there will also be “talkbacks”, where representatives from local mental health organizations will talk to the audience about some of the issues dealt with during the play.

Even with the financial support from TACTICS, Tessler chose to use simple props and only small costume changes to tell her story, relying more on her words and occasional dancing and singing to move the production along.

Some of the props she did use, however, ended up in the hands of the audience as she interacted with different members in the front row, either speaking to them directly as other “characters”, or silently handing them objects.

Steinberg met Tessler earlier this year, as they both work in the Ottawa theatre community, and Tessler later approached her to ask to join the production when she began working on (off) Balance.

“It’s been fantastic working with Naomi,” said Steinberg. “Her story is at once so completely unique because she’s such a unique person, and it’s her experience, but it’s also so relatable for so many people, so I think it’s really important to be telling it, but telling it in her own special way.”

The play overall was a very simple and accurate depiction of what it’s like to deal with mental health issues as a student, especially the fear and apprehension that comes with reaching out for help for the first time.

Throughout the play, Tessler portrayed herself, as well as the other people who were along for her mental health journey, including her parents and doctors. She demonstrated many typical experiences one goes through when dealing with mental illness, but still kept it uniquely her own, with singing and dancing, as well as personal anecdotes of how she dealt with the experience.

(off) Balance was followed by a dance-theatre piece called feelers, which focused on the sexual harassment that young women deal with on a daily basis. When Steinberg was approached by Amelia Griffin, the choreographer for feelers, she felt that it would go well as a double-bill with (off) Balance as they had similar themes

“They’re certainly about totally different things, but there’s echoes of looking at power structures, especially from a young woman’s perspective, which are often the people that don’t have as much of a voice.”

The production and performance of (off) Balance certainly gave Tessler a voice, and is a must-see for those who have dealt with or are interested in learning about mental illness on campus.

(off) Balance and feelers will be showing at the Arts Court Theatre until Nov. 21. Student tickets are $20 and can be purchased online at http://artscourt.ca/events/off-balance-and-feelers/, or at the box office at the Arts Court.