Arts

Rehearsals for 7 Stories, which runs Oct. 29 to Nov. 1 at Academic Hall. Photo: Shahana Walibhai-Campbell/Fulcrum

7 Stories raises questions of mental illness through absurdism and comedy

Content warning: This article contains mentions of suicide that may be distressing to some.

The University of Ottawa theatre department is starting their new season off with a show that expertly mixes the serious with the comedic and is sure to visually amaze, raise questions, and leave the audience literally on the edge.

Morris Panych’s play 7 Stories is a Canadian theatre classic, first performed in 1989. The play takes place on a seventh story ledge, with the protagonist — originally a man but in this production played by a woman — assumed to be contemplating jumping. The action of the play consists of characters popping in and out of the seven windows, and the audience catches each of them in a moment of personal crisis, mirroring the woman on the ledge.

“A woman finds herself standing on the ledge of a seventh story apartment building … the implication is that she’s contemplating suicide,” said Andy Massingham, the director and a theatre professor at the U of O. “Any action she takes to either go forward or go back is thwarted by everyone else who lives in the apartment, popping out and asking questions or popping out with their own personal lives.”

“We find out what her story is and the seven stories of the seven other windows,” Massingham said.  

There’s an unavoidable tension in the play, especially when one considers that the opening image is a woman standing on the ledge looking over. But despite dealing with suicide, the play is a comedy.

With its set designed by John Doucet, costuming by Judith Deboer, sound collage design by Sebastien Burke, and lighting by Margaret Coderre-Williams, the play feels divorced from reality and set within a dream. Most of the comedy comes from that absurdist element, as costumed individuals pop in and out of askew windows with their own personal dramas, set to an eclectic, timeless soundtrack. 

The set is one of the highlights of the play. Since the entire play takes place on a seventh story ledge and in seven windows, a regular stage wasn’t going to cut it. The set, Massingham explained, is a cone-shaped forced-perspective with no flat surfaces so that the audience’s point of view is looking up and the windows are set at strange angles. There are no flat surfaces or right angles, Massingham summarized.

The show, like the rest of the theatre department’s season, is entirely made up of a student cast and backstage crew. In addition to valuable acting training, students also learn lighting, sound, and work with professional stage carpenters to create the set — which, for 7 Stories, is a daunting task.

The word ‘suicide’ is uttered only twice in the play near the end. When the play’s ending does come, it’s another unexpected turn. Massingham stressed that suicide is not the point of the play, though it does deal with mental illness and the point at which we all crack from the stress.

“It’s a bit of a dangerous play, and so one of the first things I did was get some outreach with people in suicide prevention,” Massingham said. “It’s not about it, but it is about people being pushed to the limit of what they can take.”

7 Stories is a comedy with heavy themes. Massingham said that rehearsals for tragic plays always result in the most laughter, and within the play, the laughs from the audience aren’t cheap, but all work towards a bigger realization at the play’s conclusion. All that said, the play remains uplifting and has more positive messages than negative ones.

“We don’t play the gravity, we don’t play things dropping,” said Massingham. “We play things going up. There are allusions to birds flying away, escape, there are many more positive messages in the play than negative ones, so when the subject of suicide does inevitably show up, even the protagonist is ambiguous about whether that’s the reason she’s decided to find herself on the ledge.”

The Department of Theatre’s production of 7 Stories runs at Academic Hall from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1. Admission for students is pay-what-you-can.