Handsome Alice presents Certified
Written & performed by Jan Derbyshire
Directed by Roy Surette
March 15-17 @ the Joyce Doolittle Theatre, Pumphouse Theatre
by Stephen Hunt
Jan Derbyshire wants to have a talk about crazy behavior.
The Vancouver-based actor, playwright, and part-time stand-up comic knows of what she speaks: two decades ago, she found herself being assessed by a mental health board, who listened to her story, assessed her sanity and —
Well, let’s put it this way. The show isn’t called Uncertified.
“I was certified insane,” Derbyshire says.
At the time, Derbyshire was in a bad place. She was a Canadian standup with a knack for creating and performing inventive solo shows, a Fringe Fest regular who had developed a bad drinking habit that was compounded by the fact that she tried to quit cold turkey, which created a bunch of physical complications she could not manage on her own.
She needed help, which prompted the police to drop her off at the institution in question.
That was a well-intended intervention.
Once they certify you, it’s a unique kind of guilty verdict – all of which Derbyshire discovered in the days and weeks after that initial encounter.
“You carry this stigma,” she says. “They never uncertify you.
“They never say, OK! Now you’re sane!”
In Certified, which opens March 15 at the Pumphouse Theatre in Calgary, Derbyshire takes her case to a crowd she’s more familiar with: a theatre audience.
“I turn the audience into a mental health review board,” she says. “I present my case to you, and everybody gets a green, a yellow and red card and over the course of 50 minutes – the exact time real mental health review boards have – you get to vote: red, I’m insane and should be stopped, right away; a green, I’m sane, and yellow, you can’t quite be sure and so proceed with caution.”
Each night may produce a different verdict on Derbyshire’s sanity, depending on how the audience votes.
What doesn’t change every night is Derbyshire’s conviction that maybe what needs re-assessment is not her – or a lot of people’s – mental stability, but rather our perception of and definition of normative behavior.
All of which is a fancy way of saying, maybe things like depression and anger are sane responses to living in an insane world.
“Particularly if either of those things have been told to you as things you shouldn’t have,” she says. “They get framed as ‘there’s something wrong with you’ – yeah, that’s exactly one of themes of the show, which is reclaiming that.
“Even the idea of mixed emotions,” she says. “Where does that go? Because you can be both happy and grieving and angry and silly at the same time. When we talk about our emotions, it’s always one feeling at a time. Which is such a dangerous myth.”
Certified is Derbyshire’s seventh solo show. (She also recently did a brief stint in Calgary as the artistic director of MoMo Dance, the city’s disability dance company).
She loves the intimacy of the solo show, but sometimes when it’s just one person up there, there’s an absence of the sort of dramatic tension that a multiple-character play can gin up – so with Certified, Derbyshire decided to incorporate the audience as a collaborator, of sorts, in the show.
“I always like to put that tension there, so it’s not just me up there, telling that story. I think we still have to answer in solo shows to that dramatic tension.”
She was assisted by director Roy Surette, a Canadian theatre veteran and old friend who recently relocated to Vancouver to take over as artistic director at Touchstone Theatre there (he founded it in 1984) after a stint as artistic director of the Centaur Theatre in Montreal.
“We had worked together in the past and lost touch,” Derbyshire says, “and he moved here and said, how did we lose touch? And I said, I have this play for you to read!”
Maybe there’s something to be said for a mental health board, Derbyshire concedes.
They just need to ask better questions.
“I really wish,” she says, “(that) psychiatrists would ask – instead of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ – ask ‘what happened to you?”
Stephen Hunt was commissioned by Handsome Alice to write this story. He is donating the fee to Handsome Alice.