Suitcases is the brainchild of Rosanna Saracino, visionary extraordinaire and Head of the Acting division at Randolph Academy. She has produced, created and directed this full-length, episodic play which handles themes of psychological and emotional illness and identity. It begs us to consider the impact of secrecy and judgement around these conditions. Suitcases is a love letter to anyone who has felt outcast, harboured secrets, faced monsters or encountered loneliness and isolation.
Inspired by over 400 patient suitcases discovered at the Willard Asylum upon its closure in 1995, 21 performers created a devised piece that is rife with imagery, dance and text. These mediums are orchestrated in true harmony to the subject matter, telling stories that are individual yet reflect the through line of challenges to which no one is truly immune. All characters were built through ample research and intimate, vulnerable exploration. Yes, these are stories inspired by patients from the Willard Asylum. But really, they are stories of you, me and our neighbours.
Unique to the show, amongst its many gorgeous qualities, is the sheer number of Randolph graduates and faculty members involved in the production. I sat down with Rosanna Saracino, Thomas Duplessie, Heath V. Salazar and Amaka Umeh for a guided conversation after a warm, Saturday afternoon rehearsal.
NM: If we could just go around and say when you graduated from Randolph and how you got involved with the project…
RS: …and your first name and last name [Rosanna is on the ball, as per usual].
TD: I’m Thomas Duplessie and I graduated from Randolph in August 2010. I first got involved with the project when Rosanna asked me to come on board a year and a half ago for the Canadian Stage workshop. When this second iteration rolled around and she asked me if I was available for the remount, well, I always say yes to things Rosanna asks me to do. I had such a great time exploring material last time - joining again wasn’t even a question. I jumped on this project.
HS: Hi, I’m Heath Salazar and I graduated in 2013 with the Legally Blonde term. I found the audition notice on Facebook and was like “nooooo way … yessss”.
NM: When did auditions take place? August?
RS/TD/HS/AU: Yes August?…Summer?…[it’s all a blur…]…It’s August!
RS: The project started several years ago because I came across an article on the Willard Asylum and the suitcases themselves. I went to the article’s link and saw photographs of the suitcases taken by Jon Crispin. I had an immediate moment of recognition, for a lot personal reasons, and then knew immediately that I had to work on this piece. I had no idea then of what it was or the shape it was going to take, but I knew the material was right. I knew it was one of those pieces that you just wait for--it is that thing that shows up in your life and you have to make it happen. You have to grab on to it.
Then, I was selected to be the director in residence at Canadian Stage. As a part of that, I was able to work on material upon approval. I worked on two pieces, one of which was Suitcases. So, we developed around 25 minutes of material and presented it to a private invited industry audience. The feedback was that Suitcases had to be done again. Many opinions came forth suggesting a smaller cast or a larger cast. Everyone had ideas. But the most important part was that everyone was provoked. Weeks after that performance, emails came in with confessions and connections that were evoked from seeing piece.
Given the size of the cast, the grant process was riddled with issues. So, I said, “f**k it, I’m going to do it myself!” And, here we are.
And that may seem hard and fast but…in this industry we spend so much time ticking boxes and fitting preparation time into a standard two-week rehearsal. There is no room to not know and the process becomes likened to a machine pumping out a product. I wanted an opportunity and experience to not know and be inspired by people creating together.
NM: So did the second iteration of Suitcases and its development start on rehearsal day one? With this group?
RS: Absolutely. Even through casting, the audition required creating your own bit. There were moments where I knew I was going to use material. The audition process had so much commitment and energy.
On day one, I walked in and explained myself. We started generating material by working physically and writing. Some content came from the original workshop and some source material came from literature, historical texts, patient testimonies and interviews. The cast got writing and when material felt ready they submitted it to me. From there I created a streamline script.
Working with Linda has been totally collaborative. We are truly a devised ensemble and there is input going back and forth all the time. Ultimately, I make final decisions about text, shape and movement. But Linda has brought images as well as her own ideas and choreography to the piece. It is about shaping from the truth. Often we use what is already there, working from an impulse that is already alive inside an actor.
AU: Hi, my name Amaka Umeh (’14) and I was invited to participate in the work by Rosanna. She had invited me to the Canadian Stage workshop. I had received some documents, interviews and links. For some other reason I couldn't join then. So this time around, I kept close contact to Rosanna. I said, “when it’s coming back, I’m there!”
RS: I am glad that is the version of the story, because I am pretty sure I chased you down.
NM: I read the press release and I have followed Suitcases on Facebook. I have a sense of the piece. Something that stuck out to me is the notion of secrecy - how, oftentimes, personal issues are withheld from society. Secrecy is a big part of this show. How are you playing or honouring secrecy on the stage? Or are you?
RS: It is not so much that we are playing it. We are playing the elimination of secrecy. The idea or theme of Suitcases stems from how society generally reacts, but the play itself is an opportunity to remove and put secrets on the table. We are giving voice to the inner dialogue - our ideas, hope and fears. That is truer to where we are at this point rather than reflecting secrecy and its taboo.
AU: I relate a lot to that subject when it comes to withholding things because of the public’s reaction or what I perceive their reaction will be. I was recently in a situation where there was no reason to fear but I still felt stifled.
From this point onwards, our interview became quite personal. I asked the group about their own vulnerabilities throughout the process. The answers stemmed from various exercises used to build the piece. Thomas’s vulnerability stemmed from a physical connection to the objects in his suitcase. While Heath wrote throughout the building process, she found points where she would question, edit, or hide. For Amaka, she felt most vulnerable when having to spend an entire rehearsal in the life of her character.
Given the Randolph roster, I asked the group what is was like to work with graduates and faculty who they may or may not have encountered during their time training. The response was consistent - coming together in this capacity is fantastic. We discussed how during the training (and given the nature of any school system), there is limited opportunity to work creatively with actors in different terms. But, upon graduation, everyone is in the same position. It has been beyond gratifying to work alongside artists who share a namesake. As well, Suitcases rehearsed in the Annex Theatre which is housed within the Academy. The cast members agreed that this space served as a place of semblance. Each of them had made great leaps in their training years ago, in that very same space, and their footsteps are well imprinted.
At the time of this interview, the cast and creative team of Suitcases were still building. Theatre, especially devised theatre, is never done until it is done. The show opened on November 1 after a preview the night prior. As Suitcases heads into its final weekend of performances, here is what the press and critics have been saying:
“Today, mental health is out in the open. Whether it is government, individuals or corporate Canada, there has been a groundswell of support in helping raise awareness, reduce stigma and improving access to mental health care. However, this was not always the case.This makes the new theater production Suitcases all the more relevant.” - Ali Matthews, Ottawa Life
“Suitcases is a fascinating peek into the human psyche, and an attempt to look beyond the assumptions we make about those who suffer from mental illnesses. I think it’s an intriguing work, full of thoughtful elements, and well worth sitting through its 75-minute run-time.” - Lauren Stein, Mooney on Theatre
“Through her creative genius, theatrical expertise and storytelling gifts, Creator and Director Rosanna Saracino, has brought one of the most talked about discoveries in the past 20 years, to life on the Toronto stage.” - Entertainment Fairy
See Suitcases at Artscape Sandbox (301 Adelaide Street) on Friday, November 4th @ 7pm & 9:30pm, Saturday, November 5th @ 2pm & 8pm and Sunday, November 6th @ noon.