Blair Cadden, co-artistic director and co-founder of 5th Wall Productions, is decidedly not sorry. Committed since founding the company in 2014 to presenting new and socially relevant works, she says that 5th Wall is drilling down on those founding principles with a “no apologies” theme for its fourth season.
“This is the first season that we’ve given a theme. We’ve tried to make sure everything we do ties into the idea of being unapologetic or believing and fighting for something unapologetically.”
For its Piccolo Spoleto performance that translates to the boldly titled "Crazy Bitch," Cadden will direct an original ensemble-devised piece based on firsthand accounts of women incarcerated in asylums during the 19th and 20th centuries.
The idea was spawned by a book Cadden came across years ago, called “Women of the Asylum: Voices From Behind the Wall, 1840-1945,” which told the stories of women forced into asylums, mostly by men, for holding views or behaving in ways contrary to society’s dictates.
Cadden toyed with the idea of bringing their stories to the stage then, even sketching it out in a grad school application. But as the #MeToo movement bubbled up, with women all over the world sharing their stories of abuse and refusing to be silenced, it became increasingly clear that the time for these stories was now.
“I think for me this moment that we’re in is about hearing and believing women, often for the first time. And that's how a lot of this came about. Even today, one of the ways we dismiss women is by saying, ‘Oh, she’s crazy,’ or ‘Oh, that’s just my crazy ex-girlfriend.’ All these words that we throw around are silencing.”
With a clear objective and primary resources in tow — firsthand accounts researched mostly using online archives — Cadden teamed up with local poet April Bandy-Taylor and all seven members of her ensemble to turn the stories she’d collected into workable dialogue and a cohesive story. The writing process was collaborative with each cast member contributing to what would eventually become the script.
Cadden is quick to point out though that, with the exception of one fictionalized, contemporary character, most of the words audiences will hear at the show are taken directly from the women whose stories are featured in the production.
“It's a tangible way to give them back their voices, which were taken from them when they were shoved into these institutions.”
One example of the stories audiences will hear is the harrowing ordeal of Elizabeth Packard. She was married to a Calvinist minister named Theophilus Packard in 1839 in Illinois. After years of marriage, Mrs. Packard began to question some of her husband’s religious views. In response to her dissent, Theophilus had her committed to a Jacksonville Insane Asylum where she languished for three years. At the time, a husband could unceremoniously commit his wife without a public hearing or consent.
When she was finally released, her husband boarded her up in their home. Only by dropping a letter from her window (that a friend delivered to a local judge) was she able to tell her story in the court of law. She was declared sane and would continue to petition for more legal protections for women for the rest of her life.
Like the #MeToo movement, what the Piccolo production promises is an affirmation that whether you’ve been silenced for your views, struggled with mental health issues, or know someone who has, you are not alone. The central message, Cadden says, is ultimately a universal one: “Your voice has power. You can use it to effect change and start healing.”
Performance dates are May 25, 27 and June 2, 8 and 9 at the Threshold Repertory Theater, 84 Society St.