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Playwright Victoria Maxwell's journey from the psych ward to the stage

Victoria Maxwell poses for a portrait in Vancouver, July 17, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

As the stage lights go up on Victoria Maxwell, she's running, breathless, from her father and burly orderlies in a psych ward.

She's in full, florid psychosis, enmeshed in visions of spiritual enlightenment, before being wrestled onto a gurney, slapped into leather wrist restraints, dignity lost as her bare bottom pokes out of a peppermint-green hospital gown, while a nurse comes at her with "a needle as big as a frickin' 7-Eleven straw."

It is a theatrical reliving of an episode in a long, hard fall from being a twentysomething, coltish actress from North Vancouver who in the early nineties was scoring small roles alongside big names like Johnny Depp, David Duchovny and John Travolta (in, respectively, 21 Jump Street, The X-Files and Look Who's Talking Too).

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After that, everything goes black.

The gurney scene is the first in Maxwell's autobiographical one-woman play, That's Just Crazy Talk, which she's performing on July 28 at Toronto's Great Hall after a Vancouver debut. It's an hour of rapid-fire lunacy - blink and you'll miss something hilarious or heartbreaking.

It's often said that there's a fine line between genius and madness. Maxwell, who has bipolar disorder, is helping to illuminate that connection, as part of a psychosocial research project looking at ideas about mental illness and the power of art to shift them.

According to University of British Columbia psychologist Erin Michalak, "we've known for centuries the prevalence of bipolar disorder is higher in people who have rates of artistic output - musicians, performers, artists. But the science explaining why has, so far, been poor. We wanted to explore, in a really systematic way, what are the mechanisms underpinning this correlation between creativity and madness?"

As part of that effort, the play is being shown to a test audience of research participants - health-care workers and people with bipolar disorder and their families - as well as the general public. The test audience is surveyed before and after the performance and again in three months to assess any effects the theatrical performance has had on attitudes toward bipolar disorder.

Maxwell is in fact part of Michalak's team, called the Collaborative Research Team to Study Psychosocial Issues in Bipolar Disorder (CREST BD). She, along with other people who are living with bipolar disorder, have equal standing with the clinical members of the team.

"As far as I'm aware," Michalak says, "we're the only team in the world taking a community-based or participatory approach to research into bipolar disorder."

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A joint effort of the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto, Michalak's project recently received a $1-million grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to expand the work into the national sphere.

"Critical to that is our belief that people who live with bipolar disorder and their family members have an equally valuable kind of expertise," says Michalak, "in fact, one of the most critical kinds of expertise."

"The work Erin does with the research team," says Maxwell, "doesn't just pay lip service. I feel very involved as do others. I review papers. I help publish papers. This is the way we will normalize mental illness, because we are the same as everyone else."

Maxwell's one-woman show "is a method study," says Michalak. "We're testing the idea 'Can we share health information and health research through theatre? Can we effectively use theatre and the arts as a mechanism and a venue to talk about science and to talk about health?' "

That's Just Crazy Talk got an enthusiastic standing ovation at its Vancouver performance. Tightly written and deftly executed without props, it's a "love letter to my parents," she says, particularly her father, whom she calls "The Rock" throughout the piece, detailing her "gruff, Archie Bunker, racist, profane but loveable" dad's unwavering protection.

It took four psychotic breaks - including one in 1992, which saw her running naked through the streets of Vancouver's Point Grey neighbourhood "for a meeting with God" - for her to accept the diagnosis of bipolar. She eventually moved back home and got treatment, and is now, at 44, happily married and living on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast.

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Onstage, she relives the effects of her "genetic leaky valve," as she grows up dealing with her mother's severe manic depression, visiting her as an eight-year-old in the psych ward and being chased home by the school bully, an evil cretin who taunts her about her "psycho-mom." In the final scene, a grown-up Maxwell is re-visiting her now-abandoned old family home, full of ghosts of a childhood interrupted by madness, but also held together with love.

After the Toronto performance, Maxwell hopes to open an expanded version of the play to a wider theatrical release.

"My biggest dream," she says, "would be for it to be seen by a very wide audience, a public, theatre-going audience, not just people who feel like they want to know about mental illness."

Then her humour kicks in. "I know! It could be a movie - My Big Fat Psychotic Break!"

That's Just Crazy Talk makes one performance only at 7 p.m., July 28, at Toronto's Great Hall. Admission is free and open to the general public, with priority going to research participants, people with bipolar disorder and their families. Note: You must register at the venue at 6 p.m.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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