Definitions of what and who are “criminal” or “insane” have historically been tailored to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and marginalized. This fact is readily apparent as one watches Audible Songs From Rockwood at the 2019 SummerWorks Performance Festival, a song cycle by Simone Schmidt (aka Fiver) based on the case files of ten women incarcerated at Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856-1881.
The songs, which Schmidt wrote after a great deal of archival research that few others seemed interested in conducting, are pieced together and imagined largely from voices surrounding the women. This is due to the material available; the stories come from policemen, superintendents, doctors, architects and family members, the people who were actually allowed to speak.
The show is derived from Schmidt’s concept album and accompanying book of the same name. Directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, it has a bleak but rebellious aesthetic. Shuffling onto the darkened stage, passing by an imposing pile of archival papers and through scattered metal frames that resemble jail cells (designed by Shannon Lea Doyle), Schmidt enters with the weight of oppression on her shoulders.
She sings acoustic folk numbers in an appealing, rough-edged voice that sounds as though it could easily become a howl. The expansive black box stage is made to feel claustrophobic by the use of effective techniques like a focused beam of light that sometimes illuminates only part of her face, but Schmidt refuses to be contained, taking up more and more of the space.
Gradually, she’s joined by violinist Laura Bates and bassist Carlie Howell, who take the lovely music to new levels of complexity, and the mood from sombre to sparkling; with such a heavy subject, the music could easily have been one-note from beginning to end, but smart variations in tempo and timbre tell a more varied story. Even the joyful songs, though, have an achingly sad heart.
Women were admitted to the asylum for numerous reasons, many of them deeply suspect. Some made their way to Rockwood as “ruined property” so as to make a better case for the family’s financial restitution; some were locked away due to a lack of social services, such as a woman with traumatic brain injury-induced epilepsy who could no longer work and was arrested for being homeless. Others were abandoned by family members unwilling to take on the burden, and yet others simply crossed the line of what was socially acceptable in some way, usually by refusing some demand made by a man. Given their desperately hard lives, it’s no wonder that so many of them were simply diagnosed with “melancholia.”
Between the songs, Schmidt tells us about her research process, and about the building of the asylum, which saw its first female inmates confined to the horse stables until a more permanent space was completed. She introduces each woman’s story, as well as the more composite tapestry of souls that underscore their experiences. It’s semi-performance, semi-lecture, and semi-participatory; when she asks a question, it’s not rhetorical, which might have worked better in a more intimate venue.
Schmidt’s script is clever and fiercely anti-colonialist, linking the women’s stories to the treatment of the local indigenous peoples by white settlers, who gradually put an ever-tightening yoke around their supposed freedom. She is also clearly aware and respectful of the fact that even telling the women’s stories in a fictionalized, sympathetic light could be considered an invasive act, as the extensive research still has its very clear limits, and nobody is alive to give permission or to be asked if the representation is accurate. I was fascinated by Schmidt’s research process and the compelling stories she uncovered.
Her delivery of the songs is very polished and focused, and I’d like to see the same sort of pacing and focus on the rich text between songs, which often seemed a little distracted, halting, or slow in comparison, and made the show run a bit over its promised time slot.
Schmidt has a wonderful voice and distinctive style, as well, but while I had no trouble during the spoken pieces, I often found it quite difficult to make out some of her lyrics due to enunciation. I would have loved to have been able to better engage with that text in an accessible way, beyond the ability to purchase the book that accompanies the album.
Audible Songs From Rockwood is a great project with seriously great potential. It’s a story of ghosts who are all too real to those who see these systems of power and disenfranchisement continue to exist under different names. Let them speak.
Audible Songs From Rockwood is playing at the Theatre Centre Franco Boni Theatre (1115 Queen Street West).
Sunday August 11th, 4:30pm – 5:45pm
Friday August 16th, 10:45pm – 12:00am
Saturday August 17th, 6:30pm – 7:45pm
Sunday August 18th, 9:30pm – 10:45pm
Warnings: Fog/haze and mature themes
Information on Tickets and Passes:
SummerWorks tickets use a Pay What You Decide system for every show: $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level.
Advance tickets are available up until 3 hours before show time and can be purchased as follows: Online, using the Buy Ticket link found on every show page; In person at the main SummerWorks Festival Box Office the Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West) – open August 8-18 from 12pm-8pm. Tickets purchased in advance are subject to a convenience fee of $2.50/ticket. Any remaining tickets will be made available for sale at the performance venue starting 1 hour before show time. Venue box offices accept cash only.
Money saving passes are available if you are planning on seeing at least 4 shows.
Photo of Simone Schmidt by Jeff Bierk