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Voices: Addressing mental health through theatre

Iona Salter

Tue Sep 06 2011

Voices: The Carrical Project, Candlelight Productions

The story of Voices: The Carrical Project has roots in a rather unusual year 11 social studies activity. Students of Scotch College – one of Melbourne’s most elite private schools – were introduced to residents of Carrical House, a low-rent rooming house for the disadvantaged, many who suffered serious mental health illnesses. A group of students returned to Carrical on a regular basis, getting to know the residents and earning their trust. From these relationships, Voices was born.

The original theatre piece was written by the boys to capture some their experiences getting to know Carrical residents. They used composite characters, but the stories and much of the dialogue was completely true to those it was based on. The play was welcomed by both the school community and the residents and staff of Carrical, who applauded its honestly and empathy.

Candlelight Productions’ Eugene Wong was asked to guest direct a rehearsal of the original show, and he was equally impressed. Not only did it tackle difficult issues with aplomp, “it was legitimately good,” he said.

Wong decided it was a story that should find a wider audience. So this year, Candlelight re-wrote Voices, and an adult cast will present a re-imagined version to audiences over these three weeks.

“The script and set are very different, but the heart and stories are the same,” Wong said.

Wong hoped Voices would encourage people to see the person, not just the mental illness.

“These men are insightful, and have beautiful, funny stories,” he said.

The cast of Voices portray characters based on real-life residents of the Carrical rooming house

The cast of Voices portray characters based on real-life residents of the Carrical rooming house

Candlelight’s vision for the project was certainly not lost on the audience, who had a chance to delve into the lives and minds of its characters.

As the audience make their way to their seats, they are guided through a tunnel of fabric, where photographs of the real life residents of the house are displayed, along with small sound booths for listening to interviews with the men.

When Meld attended the preview last Thursday, the space was too small to accommodate the numbers in attendance, making it difficult to hear the audio material and leading to an uncomfortable jam, which was a shame. But the idea was quite a good one, and it was nice to see a small company taking risks with audience interaction.

Happily though, the Voices experience improved markedly from there.  Stepping through a door and crossing the stage decked out like the inside of a suburban home, the actors were in place, and as the lights were lowered it was easy to become immersed in the world of Carrical House.

You are introduced to Will, Wayne, George, Richard and Mark – fictional residents of Carrical House. And as the play progresses, you learn that most of them have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, and all have truly heartbreaking stories to tell.

There are echoes of Beckett in the scripting, particularly in the repeated lines of Dave Lambs’s Wayne.  Not a whole lot happens throughout the play, but the lives of the men are for the most part skilfully rendered by the actors, making for compelling viewing. Damian Hill is particularly good as George, a quietly spoken part-time crossing guard. His nuanced performance avoids clichés, and his story of being stigmatised on public transport is particularly touching.

Voices is a compassionate piece of theatre, which is courageous enough to seek to understand and honour the lives of some of our most disadvantaged persons.  Strong performances bring to life the everyday tragedies that may have befallen those who often remain voiceless.  It’s an admirable project, and well worth seeing.

Voices: The Carrical Project is showing at The Open Stage, Melbourne University from now till September 17. Tickets can be purchased online. For more information, phone 90170104.

Interested in catching the show? We have one pair of tickets to give away! For your chance to win, email before Thursday September 15. Winners will be notified by email.