One of Marie Day’s original drawings of Edward from the children’s book Edward the “Crazy Man.”
About 10 years ago, theatre designer and children’s author Marie Day, a longtime Cabbagetown resident, was walking down Parliament Street when a man dressed elaborately in a robe of green and orange garbage bags and dancing down the sidewalk naturally caught her attention.
“There’s my story,” she thought immediately.
Having already published four children’s books, mostly educational stories about paleontology and prehistoric caves, she was in search of her next project when she came across this man; she had never seen him before, but had heard from neighbours he was somewhat of a regular feature in the area. Soon, he became the title character in Day’s book Edward the “Crazy Man,” a character who stood out due to his elaborate costumes and strange behaviour, later revealed (in the book version, at least) to be schizophrenia. She never spoke to him, and has had very little contact with him since.
“I think he’s still around. I think maybe I saw him once all done up in pink with a baby doll, years ago. I don’t know who he is or where he is.”
In the years since then the book has become a play, and it’s set to begin its second run this Thursday at Theatre Passe Muraille.
The quintessential advice for writers is “write what you know.” So when subjects like mental health and homelessness become the fodder for fictional literature by those who aren’t experiencing (or never have experienced) mental illness or homelessness, one can expect a reader’s eyebrow to dance up and down. Because even though we come across these issues every day, the experiences of those directly dealing with mental health problems or homelessness are personal, complex, and incredibly difficult to convey without first-hand knowledge.
One recent example: last year, comic artist Jason Kieffer received some serious criticism when he released his graphic novel The Rabble of Downtown Toronto, a collection of 40 illustrations and written descriptions of homeless characters, some taken directly from the streets of Toronto. Though he says he had altruistic motives—that his goal was to shed light on a marginalized community—many found his work superficial, exploitative, even villainous.
In contrast, when Edward the “Crazy Man” was published in 2002, it was to critical acclaim; described as “…an excellent book for starting a discussion with children about homelessness and mental illness,” the book gained fans as far away as Australia and New Zealand. Unlike Kieffer, Day was applauded for using a homeless character in her work of fiction—though she herself was of sound mental health (if anyone can really claim that one), had a roof over her head, and no personal relationship with her subject whatsoever.
The book was so well-received, in fact, that three years ago, CAMH’s partner arts company, Workman Arts, approached Day about turning her story of a talented but misunderstood outsider (who becomes an established costume-maker with the help of a childhood friend) into a play, to help teach children about schizophrenia and homelessness. Adapted by playwright Emil Sher and under the direction of Leah Cherniak, it premiered at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People in 2008. Now, as Mental Health Week approaches, the same team is back to begin the play’s second staging.
The success of Edward the “Crazy Man” stems from Edward himself—Day portrays him as odd and different, but also brave, kind, creative, and a contributing member of society. Though Day never got to know Edward, she did write with an insight that doesn’t come only from detached observation: she wrote the story after a very close family member (she prefers not to disclose the specific relation) was diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Having no family history or past experience with such matters, she was bewildered by the new challenges she faced and was looking to express herself in the best way she knew how—through drawing and writing.
“I was already looking for a vehicle for a story about mental health. It’s a big help to people like myself who blunder into illness, and all of a sudden you have to deal with it,” says Day. “I don’t know anything about [the homeless man] whatsoever, but he really helped me.”
In the writing of her story, Day enlisted the help of psychiatrists in order to properly capture symptoms of schizophrenia. (The same goes for the sequel she’s working on now.) Similarly, John Cleland, who plays Edward in the play and has previously worked with people living with schizophrenia in Africa, conducted interviews with our city’s homeless [PDF] in preparation for his role. Conscious steps have been taken to make sure the play’s audience and the book’s readers, children and adults alike, have an accurate perception that those with a mental illness or who live on the street are much more complex than they seem, and that they too can become the heroes of the story.
“He’s a success, he’s known. There’s nothing about rabble or hexes or anything, it’s just a nice story, that’s the way I approached it,” Day says. “A mental illness is not treated the same as a physical illness, a lot of people are very smart⎯lawyers, doctors, dentists—some have marvellous things to say, but no one wants to listen to them.”
Not to say she thinks everyone can or should take on the role of speaking for the voiceless—had she not had an encounter with mental illness in her own family, after all, she might never have found herself writing about the subject. But with works like Edward the “Crazy Man” that go beyond the superficial observations that brought Kieffer and Rabble criticism, perhaps more Torontonians will get to know the Edward on their corner.
Edward the “Crazy Man” runs April 28 to May 14, 2011 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue). Tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for children/seniors, and can be purchased by calling 416.504.7529 or visiting www.artsboxoffice.ca.