Exploring Modern Tragedy and the Importance & Impact of Stories about Mental Health in the Theatre – In Conversation with “Salt” Playwright Erin Vandenberg
Interview by Hallie Seline
We spoke with the lovely Erin Vandenberg, playwright of Salt, about her curiosity in exploring how we experience and express tragedy, the impact of telling a story through the theatre, and the necessity to talk about mental health and addiction. You can catch the world premiere of Salt, on now until September 28th, at Alumnae Theatre (show details below).
Hallie Seline: Tell me a bit about the play and what inspired the piece?
Erin Vandenberg: Salt explores the impact of mental illness and addiction on two teenage sisters and their alcoholic mother.
I was re-reading several translations of Euripides and thinking about how we experience and express tragedy – whether that be intense personal tragedy or horrific societal injustice (or both at once, as is often the case). The elegance of the classical Greek play doesn’t feel right for today somehow, but still grabs me personally. In the middle of that, I came across a headline about two sisters who committed a crime as a response to a lifetime of coping with their mother’s alcoholism. From the outside, the fact that they would take such desperate action is shocking, but I didn’t feel shocked. I felt the opposite, that in the face of certain circumstances the sisters’ response was all too understandable, and that was part of the tragedy of it all for me. We don’t talk enough about mental illness and addiction. We would rather simply be shocked when someone dealing with those issues acts out and then move on.
I started Salt from there. I didn’t have a lot of details about the girls involved (they were young offenders and thus protected). I also decided not to research the real story, which I believe involved co-conspirators and a social media element. I was more interested in what might it be like for two girls to grow up with an alcoholic mother, what was happening day-to-day in the home. What was happening for the mother too – alcoholism is a disease. I placed them in a situation with limited access to resources as well. How do you cope through that? Every character is in pain in the play and fumbling to deal with that, particularly when it becomes obvious that the pain is unrelenting. I have some insight into what that feels like from my own experience with depression.
HS: Why were you drawn to present this story in the theatre?
EV: I’m drawn to theatre in general because there’s something so visceral when you have a real live human being in front of you, enacting a story. You don’t have a screen between you. You don’t have to conjure the story up from words alone.
For Salt specifically, there’s an element of storytelling inherent in the piece – all the characters tell each other and themselves stories in order to cope. But the stories alone cannot sustain them and they begin to fail as coping mechanisms. And there’s such an opportunity to show that breakdown in the theatre. In the play, one of the characters makes landscape scenes out of construction paper as her way of telling herself stories, and we have the opportunity to get to see those creations in the production in a deeply theatrical, larger than life way; seeing them like that adds to the impact. Design brings so much and can carry so much of the narrative, and that is really interesting to me as a writer. That words alone don’t have to do all the work.
HS: Can you speak about the development of this piece and how your mentors have influenced your work?
EV: This piece would not be where it is without Briana Brown, my director and dramaturge. Before her, I had been writing mostly on my own, with some sporadic, one-off workshop readings sprinkled through the process. Workshop readings are definitely helpful, but it’s different when you can get someone’s sustained support. It becomes an ongoing conversation, and to be able to have that with someone who not only understands the territory the play explores but who is perched just outside of my process is really illuminating. She also gets me really well, and the relationship we’ve established (really quickly too) makes me feel not so lonely, the way so much of the writing process necessarily is. Briana and all of our cast and design team ask really sharp questions and finding my way to answering them has brought a new clarity to the piece. They are all downright heroic, and it’s wonderful to be able to work with so many other artists. Writers in other forms don’t get that in the same way as playwrights.
HS: What is the best advice you have ever gotten?
EV: Find out who you are without the depression. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with clinical depression told me that. That was tough. It’s not necessarily related to my artistic practice, but it opened something up for me – I am not the disease. When you are inside it, it’s so easy to get lost. I’m still figuring out who I am without the depression.
Also, always be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then, always be a unicorn. I think that’s pretty solid. (The internet tells me this can be attributed to Elle Lothlorien from her book Alice in Wonderland, which appears to be a romance novel…)
HS: What is your favourite place in the city?
EV: My bed. Especially when I’m reading or napping there with my cats. I made my peace with the fact that I am not cool long ago.
HS: Where do you look for inspiration?
EV: Books. Conversations. Paintings. History. Nature. Anything that both gets me out of my own head and resonates with me on a gut level.
I also find that I find inspiration through the work – the act of writing, forcing myself to sit there with a piece and think through it, breeds inspiration. I find I often can’t answer questions about my work in person, I can only do it through the next round of re-writes.
HS: If your audience could listen to one song before the show, what would it be?
EV: Asking for Flowers by Kathleen Edwards. I’ve been listening to it every time I sit down to work on the play. Part of the chorus is “Don’t tell me you’re too tired, 10 years I’ve been working nights.” Which pretty much sums up how I feel about living with depression, how frustrating and exhausting it can be. I am not the disease, but it’s something that I wrestle with every day, just like the characters in the play.
Presented by Lark & Whimsy Theatre Collective
Written by Erin Vandenberg
Directed by Briana Brown
Featuring: Philippa Domville, Cosette Derome, Lucy Hill, Geoffrey Armour and Stephanie Jung
Set & Costume Design by Anna Treusch
Lighting Design & Production Manager – Gabriel Cropley
Sound Design by Lyon Smith
Stage Manager – Laurie Merredew
Assistant Stage Manager – Deanna Galati
Publicity Consultant – Katie Saunoris
Consulting Producer – Lisa Li
Assistant Producer – Brittany Kay
Produced by Chris Baker and Erin Vandenberg
When Lilias returns home after a year at school, she finds her mother Vivian increasingly fixated on Great Aunt Rose ‐ a figure Lilias believes never existed ‐ and her sister Petal virtually engrossed in a construction-paper fantasy world. Faced with an ever‐deteriorating family situation, Lilias struggles to chart a course that protects herself and Petal from Vivian’s abuse. But as tensions run high, the roles of abuser and victim become blurred.
Alumnae Studio Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street
Tuesday, Sept 20 – 7:30pm (Opening)
Wednesday, Sept 21 – 1:30pm & 7:30pm
Thursday, Sept 22 – 7:30pm
Friday, Sept 23 – 7:30pm
Saturday, Sept 24 – 1:30pm & 7:30pm
Sunday, Sept 25 – 7:30pm
Tuesday, Sept 27 – 7:30pm
Wednesday, Sept 28 – 7:30pm (Closing)