Cry Havoc Theater Company Explores Timely Themes in New Play "Committed: Mad Women of the Asylum"
By Cristee Cook
Dallas’ Cry Havoc Theater Company, an award-winning youth theatre company, is opening a new devised play: Committed: Mad Women of the Asylum. Directed by Artistic Director Mara Richards Bim and devised by Bim, Associate Director Emily Ernst, Acting Coach Lisa Cotie, and a teen cast, Committed is based on first person accounts from women who were wrongfully institutionalized in the late 1800s.
Cry Havoc premiered their first devised theatrical work in 2017: Shots Fired, which was a verbatim piece in which the cast and producers created the script and performance from personal interviews. Since then, the company has made a name for themselves as not only a teen theatre company, but also as a company who excels at telling creative stories from firsthand, personal accounts of real events or topical issues such as gun violence and immigration.
Committed follows Cry Havoc’s tradition of devised work, but for this show they did things a little differently. Not only did they make a departure from the verbatim format, Committed will be an immersive experience, inviting audience members to move freely through a surreal Victorian world, choosing where to go and what to experience.
I spoke with Cry Havoc Artistic Director Mara Richards Bim about the process of developing the play, the inspiration behind the story, and how many of the themes in the play are relevant in today’s sociopolitical climate.
I would love to start by hearing why you were inspired to tell the story.
MRB: About 15 years ago or so I was in New York city and went to The Strand Bookstore and I came across a used book that had all of these first-person narratives from women who had been institutionalized in the late 1800s/early 1900s. So, I've been fascinated by it for all that time. Then as we headed into the election season, I was struck by lots of stuff that had to do with gender and how women are treated versus how men are treated. So, it seemed like an interesting time to explore gender and madness and things like that. So, that’s where the inspiration came from.
And if I understand correctly this is a departure from your verbatim shows, correct?
MRB: Instead of staging the actual first-person narrative, which is what we normally do for our verbatim shows, this time we really used them as a springboard. So we read all these narratives and then we created our own story and devised it, based on, or inspired by, the narratives.
What can audiences expect for the interactive portion of the play?
MRB: Well, there will be a moment where multiple themes are happening throughout the space and the audience. Every audience member has to make choices about what they're going to listen to because they can't hear everything so they can make a choice, like “Choose Your Own Adventure.” So, based on the choices they make, they're going to get a different understanding of the story. Somebody could potentially come back several times and have a different experience. We have moments where the full cast comes together and then something happens and smaller scenes start happening around the space. And then they come back together again for another full cast moment. And that happens several times throughout the performance.
Does the story have contemporary political undertones?
MRB: Nothing is explicitly political. This story takes place in an era where men police women’s bodies and behavior, and I think we can see echoes of that today, including here in Texas. So, if anything, this show touches on that and what it means for men to make decisions about women’s’ bodies. Some of the reasons that women were institutionalized in the 1800s and early 1900s are still very resonant today. For example, we have a character who is a lesbian. And we have two characters in the story who had abortions. And one of the things that's interesting for us is that in the time period that the play takes place, abortion - prior to when a woman would feel the fetus move, prior to that - abortion was not looked at as a moral problem. It was a choice a woman could make for her body. And what we also see in the time period is women are looking for the right to vote. It’s right after the Civil War, so very often husbands and wives had very different ideals regarding race and racism in this country, right? So, all of those things are woven into the fabric of our story. So, it isn’t explicitly political, but we did find many relevant themes.
Finally, how have the teen actors responded to this new process?
MRB: They have really enjoyed this process, which again, is different than what we typically do. They have really taken ownership over these characters. We developed the play over Spring Break, so most of the cast has been together that long. They also created these characters. So, I think they feel really connected to these characters and make decisions for these characters and as the characters. It’s been a really fun process.
Cry Havoc Theater Company presents Committed: Mad Women of the Asylum, July 22 – August 1, 2021 at the historic Southside on Lamar building. Performances are limited to 30 audience members per show. Tickets can be purchased online at www.cryhavoctheater.org or by calling 214-538-0825.