AWI Exclusive Interview: Theatre Artist Ilana Zackon

We focus a great deal of our attention on film here at AWI, but today we bring you some impactful art from the stage.

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Yes, even more impactful than the local middle school’s fall production of…whatever this is.

Drawing on her own struggles with mental illness within a healthcare system lacking sufficient resources, Montreal-based actor Ilana Zackon was inspired to create Project X Performance, a theatre company with a mission to “raise awareness about stigmatized social issues through the development and presentation of original performances inspired by true stories.” The company’s premiere production, Part I, explored depression, anxiety, and eating disorders through a bilingual presentation designed to open a conversation about mental health.

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AWI was fortunate enough to catch up with Ilana to get inside the mind of this dynamic performer and theatre artist, giving us a fresh look at someone who is more at home onstage than behind the camera.

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AWI: You are very open about your experience with mental illness and how it has informed your art — particularly Part I, which relies on the personal stories of the performers involved. In what ways do you think artists have a responsibility to share their own stories when dealing with stigmatized topics?

ILANA ZACKON: As theatre artists, we have the unique opportunity to make a difference in society through what is essentially living art. The power of true stories, especially, is like no other. Part I invites the audience to experience and observe snippets of the performers’ personal lives relating to their mental health issues. Through our multidisciplinary style, which includes live sculpture, story-telling and physical theatre among other mediums, we aimed create a visceral experience for the audience on this important topic. It is easy to become desensitized to stories we are constantly seeing on TV or reading about in the news. Our goal was for those watching the performance to feel less alone in their own personal struggles, as well as understand others who be struggling in silence as well. At Project X Performance our mission statement is to raise awareness about stigmatized social issues through the development and presentation of original performances inspired by true stories. We believe this to be an effective way of creating change in the community and hope to continue making an impact, through our work.

AWI: Part I consisted of an all-female cast. Was this a deliberate decision? How do you think this shaped the storytelling of the piece? 

ILANA ZACKON: Our casting call was open to both men and women. However, in the casting process, we found three female performers who fit the project very well, so decided to to make it a choice. Our board at Project X is made up of all women, so we thought continuing on that ‘all female train’ could be a great way of promoting female Canadian artists. The stories shared, in rehearsal and on stage, were beautiful and working with performers Jacquie, Lyne and Mercedeh was a great experience. Our Sound Designer, Joe Browne, was the only male involved in the process. We were thankful for his contributions, both artistically and also regarding the male perspective. Having his voice in the room helped us make certain decisions, in regards to keeping the themes universal. Our company is also very interested in adding in the male perspective to the piece, as we continue build upon Part I for the newly revised version coming next year. Our goal, with adding in this fourth performer, is to further diversify the members of the cast and provide a well-rounded depiction of Montreal’s community. Statistically, men are less likely to speak up about their mental health issues as women are and it’s time to break that stigma, as well!

AWI: What was the biggest surprise or learning experience during the process of developing Part I? 

ILANA ZACKON: As this was our company’s first production, I would say the entire process was a tremendous learning experience. Developing a script takes a lot of time, effort and team work. The dramaturge Elisha Conway and myself, as the Director, created assignments for the actors to bring in. We also improvised in rehearsal, as well. I lead the performers through creation workshops – experimenting with various forms of telling their stories. Every rehearsal was filmed and then Elisha would go home and try to piece it all together into a functioning script. We had a big team, including a Stage Manager, Movement Coach, Production Manager, Sound Designer and Intern among others, and everyone was certainly busy! We managed to pull off creating an entirely new piece of work all in the span of one intensive month! It was very immersive. Quite a nerve-wracking experience for sure to be making changes so often – even a week before we opened! However, somehow it all came together and the crowd was very receptive to the piece. Moving forward, though, we definitely will be giving ourselves more time for the creation process so there’s slightly more breathing room (!)

AWI: Your theatre company, Project X Performance, focuses on social issue-based material. What advantage do you think live theatre has over other media when it comes to exploring mental health and mental illness? 

ILANA ZACKON: As I mentioned prior, theatre is an immensely powerful tool to create change. When a performer is right in front of you, recounting their true personal experience, you can really feel the reality of the subject matter. We also had the audience on both sides of the playing space. At times the fourth wall was broken, when actors would speak directly to the audience, making them part of the story.

We all have different ways of understanding and learning, which is why we made the choice of doing a multidisciplinary project. The many mediums and often abstract representations of the stories offer audience members different ways to connect to the subject matter and understand it from various perspectives, perhaps in a way they hadn’t before. Especially when dealing with mental health issues, experiences are not always easily explained only through words. Mercedeh Baroque created a captivating movement piece on her PTSD, for example. Nowhere in the piece does she say “I suffer from PTSD”, but through her movement the audience can understand her silent struggle. This cannot be done by reading a book, or watching an interview. We also included scenes and live monologues, among other mediums. In our talk back sessions, many audience members brought up how real everything felt when the actors would do these live improvisations on stories from their lives – Jacqueline Van der Geer tells a story about her friend with AIDS and Mercedeh Baroque tells a story about seeking help as a high school student.

Furthermore, after the show, each member of the audience was given a piece of paper and pen. They then had the opportunity to write their own story on silent struggle, with the option of donating it to the company for potential future source material. Drawing materials were also provided and the audience’s artwork was put up in the space. Though this is not done in traditional theatre, theatre today has no limits. We can involve the audience in such a profound way and that is why I believe theatre to be such a wonderful way ofhelping the community to break taboos.

AWI: Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to share with us? 

ILANA ZACKON: In the Fall of 2017, look out for a newly revised version of Part I. We will be keeping certain elements from the original production, but going deeper into the lives of the performers and adding in a new male performer. Our premiere was a workshop of the piece and we look forward to building upon the foundation that was created. The show’s title has not been announced yet…To keep updated, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or visit our website.

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Thank you, Ilana, for this fascinating look into your dynamic work! We wish you and Project X Performance all the best as you continue to pursue your incredibly important mission.

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