Creative minds meet and mingle at Workman Arts’ 26th Rendezvous with Madness Festival

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Kelly Straughan

Why is the association between art and madness so widely-held? Is it even valid? These are among the questions that Workman Arts’ annual Rendezvous with Madness Festival poses in its exploration of mental illness and addiction through the lived experiences of artists and their art. “There is definitely the myth of the mad genius, or that ‘creative types’ are prone to mental health issues,” offers Kelly Straughan, Executive Artistic Director of Workman Arts, the longest-running arts and mental health organization in North America, operating in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). “I don’t believe someone is more creative when in the throes of an acute illness – mental health or otherwise,” she clarifies, before continuing: “I do think art makes us better people – more empathetic and understanding. It’s the way we understand and make sense of our own lives, and so exploring difficult topics through art seems like a natural connection.” Some festival artists are certainly using art for this exact purpose, which remains widely relevant because of our universal “desire to understand the human condition” and ability to relate to mental health struggles.

Rendezvous with Madness began in 1992 as a film festival which explored the “realities and mythologies surrounding mental health and addiction issues”. 2018 marks the festival’s 26th edition, which will run over 12 days at 9 venues. This year also marks the festival’s expansion into a multidisciplinary arts showcase, with 6 theatre performances at Toronto Media Arts Centre and a complementary visual arts exhibition featuring local Canadian artists at the Toronto Media Arts Centre gallery titled Bursting Bubbles: Creating Context for Evolving Solitudes. These events are provided in addition to the year’s films, which comprise 18 features and short programs from around the world, curated by Rendezvous Film Program Director Geoff Pevere. Ms Straughan recollects how 26 years ago, Rendezvous with Madness was on the “cutting edge” of what was happening artistically and in the mental health field: “We were the first mental health film festival in the world, which tells you just how radical the idea was. Fast forward 26 years, the dialogue around mental health has changed – people are more willing to self-identify, to tell their stories and to find a supportive community.”

“The Song and the Sorrow,” Gene MacLellan (image courtesy of Workman Arts)

This year’s festival opens with the Toronto premiere of The Song and The Sorrow, a feature documentary by PEI-based filmmaker Millefiore Clarkes about Canadian songwriter Gene MacLellan, best known for his 1970s hits “Snowbird”, “Put Your Hand in the Hand” and “The Call.” MacLellan gained national recognition as a Juno-Award-winning musician-songwriter. Uncomfortable with such widespread attention, MacLellan took his own life in 1995 after a lifelong struggle with depression. The film captures his daughter Catherine’s desire to revisit her father’s past, in order to reconcile with her family’s tragedy while prompting greater dialogue about mental illness and suicide. The Song and The Sorrow will be screened at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, accompanied by live performances from Catherine MacLellan and Workman Arts’ Bruised Years Choir. “While we’ve made great strides in bringing the mental health discussion forward, there is still so much stigma and shame surrounding the topic,” Ms Straughan notes, as our conversation moves to the topic of mental illness among youth, many of whom are vulnerable. “On Sunday, October 14 as part of Rendezvous with Madness, we are presenting If You Ask Me, in partnership with CAMH’s National Youth Action Council.” For this presentation, Workman Arts commissioned 15 youth filmmakers and provided mentorship as they created short films exploring their experiences with mental health and/or addiction.“Our hope is that in sharing these experiences, youth will feel less alone in their struggles, and more likely to come forward and ask for help.”

“Dinner with Madness”, Goat Howl Theatre (image courtesy of Workman Arts)

As our exchange draws to a natural close, Ms Straughan makes specific mention of two events. The first is a free Movie in the Park evening at Dufferin Grove Park on Tuesday, October 16th at 7:30 pm, featuring the Oscar-nominated film The Breadwinner. She notes that, “while many of our plays and films are not suitable for a younger audience, The Breadwinner is a perfect family movie that is equal parts thrilling and enchanting.” The animated feature film is based on the book of the same name, and is part of a trilogy by Canadian author Deborah Ellis. The story follows an 11-year-old girl growing up under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. When her father is wrongfully arrested, she cuts off her hair and dresses like a boy in order to support her family. Ultimately, “it is an inspiring story about the power of stories to sustain hope in difficult times.”

Ms Straughan also insists that the closing night event should not be missed: “On Saturday October 20th from 5pm – 2am at Workman Arts, there is a full building activation. The event is called Nerve Endings and features bands, DJs, performance art, theatre, visual art and everything in between.” At the end of the night and for just $2, guests can even take some art home with them from the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate, an artist’s-multiple project by Catherine Heard that distributes work by Canadian creators and makes art affordable. Ms Straughan assures that the evening will be “incredible”.

“Happy Family 2018” – mixed media by Stephanie Avery (image courtesy of Workman Arts)

Through Rendezvous with Madness, Workman Arts continues to make vital advocacy inroads into mental illness and addiction as lived realities, while fostering artistic expression and inviting discussion. Although our awareness has increased, there is much still to do, especially to support our youth. The focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day  is to raise awareness of adolescent mental health and help young people to look after their mental well-being. The sobering facts and statistics on the CAMH website state that youth 15 to 24 years of age are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance-use disorders than any other age group. Further, 34% of Ontario high-school students indicate a moderate-to-serious level of psychological distress, with 14% indicating a serious level of psychological distress. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of all mental illnesses begins by the age of 14, with most cases going undetected and untreated. When sufferers feel compelled to hide their symptoms, the effects can be devastating. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth 15-29 years of age.

So clearly, building mental resilience from a young age is critical. WHO posits that promoting and protecting adolescent mental health benefits not only adolescents, but also economies and society in the long term. In this light, the potential for Rendezvous With Madness to impact these statistics positively is poignant. This year’s expansion of the festival reveals that plenty of artists have plenty to express at the meeting place of art and “madness” . . . and reinforces that showing, rather than telling (or worse, hiding), is the best way to challenge perceptions, reduce stigma and spark dialogue. “Incredible,” indeed!

News You Can Use

What: Rendezvous With Madness Multidisciplinary Arts Festival, presented by Workman Arts
When: October 10 – 21, 2018
Where: Visit website for venue information
Info and Tickets:

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine

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