Vancouver-based Victoria Maxwell was an experienced film and television actor who had worked alongside such talents as John Travolta, David Duchovny and Johnny Depp.
But after experiencing several psychoses – breaks with reality – in the late 1980s and eraly `90s, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and anxiety.
For some, such an obstacle might have been insurmountable, but Maxwell decided to take a proactive approach to recovery, fusing art and mental health advocacy.
For the last 15 years she has been what she describes as “a wellness warrior” – successfully reinventing herself as a performing artist, workshop leader and keynote speaker who employs her comedic sensibility to increase awareness, transform negative stigma and inspire others to improve their mental well-being.
Over the past three months, in collaboration with Peace Arch Hospital Foundation, she has been helping Semiahmoo Peninsula residents voice their own truth about the ups and downs of living with mental illness.
Those experiences will be shared this Sunday at 7 p.m. in a one-of-a-kind stage show called The Truth Be Told Project, at the Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Rd.)
Community mental health occupational therapist Leah Kasinsky – who has been coordinating the show – notes that it’s a by-donation performance that involves some 10 members of the community in a series of storytelling monologues, interspersed with segments by Maxwell herself.
She explained that it’s an outgrowth of a PAHF show of several years ago at the Coast Capital Playhouse – Stand Up For Mental Health – which played before a sold-out house.
Such shows, she believes, are critical in breaking down stereotypes about mental illness – and she notes the project has also been a trial run for Maxwell, who is developing a program for working with groups.
“There’s still a lot of stigma attached to mental illness,” she says. “The stories you hear tend to be about people not doing well.”
But in recent years, she said, there has been a shift in perspective in the medical system.
“We’ve moved to a ‘recovery’ model, in which a person isn’t defined by their illness, and expectations are based on changing and learning and growing – where there’s hope,” she said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that people’s illnesses won’t be part of their life, but it does mean that they can get help that is more meaningful to them.”
Kasinsky said Maxwell’s own warm and funny approach to her own experiences has been matched by a willingness, as director and mentor, to “help everyone find their own voice – they don’t all sound like her.”
It was easy finding people to participate in the program – the only real requirement was that they indentified as being on a recovery journey, Kasinsky said – but she added that she has been amazed by the courage and creativity they have revealed, under Maxwell’s guidance, during the process of developing their monologues.
“Sharing their personal stories is very brave,” she noted. “It’s been an honour for me to have been able to witness people taking risks, and I’m gratified that they have been willing to do this.”
While there are sad elements to the show, there is also a lot of humour as well, she noted.
“It’s not all serious – there are a lot of silly things that happen in life, and it’s good to get up there and laugh about it together.”