The set on Some Assembly Theatre Company’s newest production, The Wait List Experiment, is certainly an attention grabber. At the centre of the stage is a 10-metre by five-metre eye that leads into a labyrinth made up of nine panels.
The giant eye overlooks eight youths—all on wait lists to see therapists—who’ve been recommended for an experimental peer-support program to cope with the pandemic.
“This eye ends up pulling in the youth when they’re ready to face their fears,” playwright and director Valerie Methot tells the Straight by phone.
The audience hears the voice of a program facilitator named Iris, but it’s not clear where she is.
“This experimental pandemic peer-support program takes place in an eye because one’s eyes have to be open in order to access any kind of optimism,” Methot says.
She created the Roundhouse Youth Theatre Action Group project in 2002 as the artist-in-residence at the Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre.
Methot recalls that when she first began doing this work, she was amazed by the number of youths who wanted to participate in works that also involve professional artists. She quickly learned that they were not interested in working on plays typically produced in their schools, including the works of William Shakespeare.
“A lot of these youths were newcomers to Canada,” Methot says. “And it was really eye-opening to me what their struggles were.”
For more than two decades now, she’s been doing annual call-outs. This year’s group ranges in age from 12 to 21 and includes some who’ve worked on projects in previous years.
At the start of every production, she creates a “meeting agreement” to establish a safe space for all participants.
“We always do a warm-up at the beginning,” Methot says. “We acknowledge the land we stand on, we acknowledge each other, and we do empathy exercises. So it’s all about being seen and being heard with respectful boundaries.”
In early workshops, the youths discussed the pressures that they faced trying to envision their future in the midst of a pandemic. “So I knew that this would be very important content to tackle,” Methot says.
The youths also educated her about “toxic positivity”, which is when optimism is not rooted in reality.
This year’s production of The Wait List Experiment includes masks designed by Melody Anderson. Her false faces have been used in more than 50 productions, including The Number 14. The show’s movement director and physical dramaturge is professional theatre artist Susan Bertoia, whom Methot described as an “amazing artist”.
The idea for the eye came from visual artist Joe Baker, who worked on it with Duane Murrin, both of whom share a set-designer credit with Methot.
There are 11 youths credited as writers, actors, musicians, or designers: Hiraeth Campbell, Fox Hunt, Mitch Broome, Ciara Wilkinson, Nghi Nguyen, Ayden Ramzan, Lily Truesdell, Fiona Jenkins, Isobel Galsworthy, Tiffany Adams, and Ari Brewer.
Even though The Wait List Experiment deals with a heavy subject—mental health and addiction—Methot emphasizes that there is a lot of joy on the set and promises that the show will be “super entertaining”.
“The masks are really helping that out,” she noted. “So is the movement. A lot of the youth are getting involved in the visual design. We did drawing exercises, so there’s a lot of artistry going on here.”