Theatre New Brunswick will host the story Watching Glory Die this Thursday at the company’s Studio Theatre in Fredericton. The intimate setting is only suitable for the play based off the life of 19-year old New Brunswick native, Ashley Smith.
Smith spent five years in several canadian correctional facilities until being placed in solitary confinement at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. There, Smith died when she strangled herself in her jail cell while guards watched.
“I hope it makes us ask questions about the world that we live in and the way things are and whether or not they can change,” says Thomas Morgan Jones, artistic director of TNB.
Glory is the main character and a fictionalized portrait of Smith, who’s case made headlines in 2007. Smith was under suicide watch, but guards had been instructed not to intervene unless she stopped breathing.
Smith had an extensive history of at times violent outbursts and self-inflicted harm. These frequent episodes were part of the reason why Smith’s suicide threats were branded as empty – this wasn’t the first time she had acted out in such a way, but her actions now speak louder than ever as what had been a serious cry for help.
Actress Stephanie MacDonald plays three characters – Glory, her adoptive mother Rosellen and a corrections officer interchangeably.
Jones hopes this multifaceted approach will draw the audience into the play’s theme.
“What theatre does best is it helps us to access the story through people,” says Jones. “I hope that by accessing the story through one woman who’s channeling three different people of three different perspectives they’ll be able to look at that story and themselves differently.”
The play’s director, Emmy Alcorn, says the play sets out to do more than just highlight Smith’s case making waves eight years ago. For the prolific Nova-Scotia-based performer and producer, it’s an art that speaks directly to a problem that goes beyond the choices of a handful of prison guards.
“It’s the kind of story you don’t expect to happen in a democracy – in a country that’s known for its kindness and generosity,” she says. Alcorn says there was a larger system at play when it came to Smith’s case. One that’s conveyed by the human sides of each character in the play.
“It’s not just a story about the prison – it’s a story about a mother and her daughter [and] someone being very conflicted about what they’re told to do and what they want to do. It’s about people being caught in situations that are uncomfortable.”
Alcorn worked closely with MacDonald to achieve the rawest intimacy in her performance. They would try the lines one way, then regroup and work them over to achieve a sincerity necessary for a set with barely any props or sounds.
It’s just one woman shifting between characters all with the change of a stage light. The atmosphere is delicately grim but paints a picture of a flaw in Canada’s approach to mental illness in the judicial system.
“People are so surprised when they come into a room together and they’re all going through this transformative experience – laughing, crying, [it’s] catalytic,” she says. “A play like this, it makes people talk to each other. It initiates discussion.”
Smith’s story is remembered because it shed light on the country’s structural approach towards rehabilitation. Deviance has a psychological cohort in every case, and much of the dialogue has changed surrounding mental disorders and solutions toward them since Smith’s death.
Alcorn says the play doesn’t set out to solve this problem, merely to be a part of the conversation.
“The audience comes to realize that they could be any one of those three characters themselves. It’s about keeping the conversation going.”
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