How do you talk about mental health issues with children?
Actor John Cleland is struggling with that question as the title character in Edward The Crazy Man, adapted by Emil Sher from Marie Day’s book.
“It’s been a real education for me to explore a homeless man who’s living with schizophrenia,” says Cleland, a fine actor whose recent work includes Don’t Wake Me and Autoshow.
The 12-year-old Charlie meets Edward wandering around the neighbourhood, and though Charlie’s friends call Edward names, Charlie makes a connection with him through shared artistic interests. But then Charlie goes a step further – he invites Edward home for dinner.
“We’re all so hung up on labels and categories that we sometimes forget that those we dismiss have a valid life and history. This is a play about compassion and recognizing the humanity in everyone.”
Cleland is working with director Leah Cherniak to make Edward a rounded figure rather than a stereotype. Besides doing one-on-one research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the actor has tried a virtual hallucination machine, a piece of technology that allowed him to approximate a schizophrenic experience.
“It was eye-opening to be bombarded by every stimulus in the environment and also have thoughts and earlier conversations coming at me at the same time. You’re struggling with a cacophony of auditory, tactile and visual messages.”
Cleland emphasizes Edward’s creativity, his interest in music and painting, as a key source of solace for the character.
“He realizes that the young Charlie isn’t as dismissive of him as are other children and adults, and they form a bond around decorated hubcaps.
“But Charlie comes to a realization, too, which is that his friendship with Edward has constraints, and he can’t expect the same commitment from Edward that he gets from others in his life.”
The show, recommended for kids nine and up, is presented by Workman Arts, a troupe that regularly brings together professional artists and those dealing with mental health issues.