MONTREAL – Ilana Zackon felt she had lost her way by choosing to further her theatre studies in New York. The city was overwhelming, and the school did not live up to her expectations.
“I was really lonely and couldn’t function through the burnout and depression. It just kept spiralling downward until I was not in a good head space at all, so I came back to Montreal at the end of April 2014 to get over what happened and restart my career,” she says.
Her upsetting experience proved to be the foundation for Project X Performance, the theatre company that has found a whole new way to sensitize the public to mental illness.
Co-founded with Shannon Leibinger of Toronto, with whom she attended John Abbott College’s professional theatre program, the company is formulated around collective creations.
These involve research and interviews regarding real-life situations and the building of scripts using verbal and physical theatre processes.
Their first endeavour, titled Part I, which ran nine times from June 4 to 19 as part of the Off-Fringe Festival, is an amalgam of personal stories about each actor’s encounter with a mental health issue. Zackon and the other actors tackle how they have handled circumstantial depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, a friend’s schizophrenia and eating disorders.
The second half of the evening involves a talkback and collecting ideas from the audience for future shows using drawings and written suggestions.
“We’re trying to create a sense of empathy in the audience, so that when people watch the show, they understand mental health in a different way,” says Zackon, who hopes to inspire people to speak openly.
“When I was going through what I did in New York, I felt alone as if nobody had ever experienced what I went through. Then I met other people who proved me wrong, and I knew it was OK to find my voice and not keep it as a silent struggle. If you let it fester, nothing gets resolved.”
The company members will circulate in the Fringe crowds before the show with an “X” taped to their mouths to symbolize the silence that must be broken.
“Two years ago, I didn’t find a lot of people who were open to talking about mental health. I was afraid they’d judge me. That began to change when Bell started its Let’s Talk campaign,” says Zackon, who decided to do her talking in a theatrical way.
Zackon wears three hats as producer, director and one of four performers in a cast that also includes Jacqueline Van der Geer, Mercedeh Baroque and Lyne Labrie.
The show was staged at 3845 St. Laurent Blvd. in a gallery space exhibiting urban art in the parallel Mural Public Art Festival. Proceeds from the show will support Expression LaSalle, which offers professional therapeutic services in mental health through theatre, art and music. Future projects will fundraise on such themes as addictions and the homeless mentally ill.
Zackon, who was born in Toronto but grew up in Dollard des Ormeaux, says she is following in the footsteps of her social activist grandmother Goldie Hershon.
Hershon was president of Canadian Jewish Congress from 1995 to 1998 and fought for national unity and the rights of Soviet Jews. Zackon says she was also inspired by her role in a John Abbott production of Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project that used collective creation to address the tragic hate crime murder of a gay student in Wyoming.
Before she develops the next Project X Performance, Zackon is off on a cross-Canada summer tour in Tohu Bohu Productions’ children’s show The Magical Journey. Finding meaning and direction from her brush with depression has set Zackon on a magical journey of her own.