In Watching Glory Die, her newest script, playwright Judith Thompson—who has penned a list of Canadian classics that includes The Crackwalker, Lion in the Streets, and Palace of the End—picks up the story of a lonely death. She hopes to insert it under your skin.
Thompson makes no bones about the fact that her script, which will premiere at the Cultch, was inspired by the case of Ashley Smith, the 18-year-old New Brunswicker who strangled herself with a strip of cloth in Ontario’s Grand Valley Institution in 2007, while guards videotaped. Even though Smith was on suicide watch, the guards were under orders from Corrections Canada administrators not to enter her room unless she had stopped breathing. When they finally intervened—after 45 minutes—Smith was pronounced dead. According to “Out of Control”, a TV documentary that ran on The Fifth Estate, Smith first ran afoul of the law for throwing crabapples at a letter carrier.
Speaking over the phone from Toronto, where she is rehearsing the Canadian Rep Theatre production, and blurring the lines between Glory, the character, and Smith, the real-life girl, Thompson says, “She’s a child. She’s a child. She doesn’t see consequences, so she breaks the rules in the stupidest ways, like telling a guard to F off.” Every time something like that happened, Smith’s imprisonment was extended. Her initial monthlong incarceration at 14 stretched into four years of confinement.
The play’s three characters are the teenager, her mother, and a guard. Thompson, who hasn’t acted since 1980, will play all three roles.
In life, Smith’s diagnoses included borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality traits. In the play, Glory invokes a character she calls her crocodile mother: “She is in the swamp the swamp you don’t see and I don’t see but I feel…right under me, moving, wet, and waiting. Can you smell it? I can smell it now, all the time. Smells like dead mice and dog food. And…a baking cake. Really good and really bad.”
Thompson says that Glory got her name when Iris Turcotte, the dramaturge at Factory Theatre, where Thompson first workshopped this piece, asked her to think about what flower the character reminded her of. “And I said, ‘The morning glory’, ” she recalls, “because of how she can shine with such colour and then retreat, and she’s hidden from us.” In the morning glory, Thompson also sees a metaphor for the public’s awareness of the suffering of the marginalized. “The story shines out in the morning and then is gone at night,” she explains. “It keeps happening and then we forget.”
Thompson routinely writes about those who have been dispossessed—often by their DNA. She believes this is partly because of her epilepsy. “I haven’t suffered the way that many people have,” she clarifies, “but I think that it [the epilepsy] gave me some kind of lens. And it’s the combination: I have enough sense of entitlement as a person, with the privileges I’ve had, to write a play, and to think that anybody would listen; but then I also was—I think I would say lucky enough to go through the epilepsy, and a couple of rough years in school, to have an understanding.”
Asked what a theatrical experience can add to the already extensive coverage of Smith’s story, Thompson replies: “The play is live. I’m never pretending to be any of the characters; I’m channelling them deeply and offering not just my intellectual understanding, but also my emotional landscape. And I feel like the poetry of a play can get at the root, like a shovel, in a different way. Proselytizing and documentaries and such might change the surface more immediately, but these are so deeply rooted, these problems. It’s systemic, isn’t it? Our lack of consciousness, our blindness. That’s what I want to get at. And I want to wake myself up. You know?”
Watching Glory Die plays at the Cultch’s Historic Theatre from Wednesday (April 23) to May 3.