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Issue 145

#GetMad: Rendezvous with Madness Festival
by Justice Walz

My experience with Workman Arts’s annual festival, Rendezvous with Madness (RWM), began at the opening reception. I arrived anxious, on account of anticipation and a generalized anxiety disorder, still shaking with palms sweating from the panic attack I’d experienced on the way over. Upon entering, I stole a nervous glance at my phone to see if my eyes were still puffy from the involuntary tears that had fallen mid-panic. I cringed at the incongruity of hiding evidence of my mental illness while attending the world’s largest, longest-running mad-positive arts festival—and yet, I took a minute to compose myself before joining the crowd. Shirking potential social interaction, I made my way down a quieter hallway. Here, I came across Alison Crouse’s Devastation Portraits (2019) and realized I was exactly where I needed to be. Each portrait featured the same subject, lying face down, in an overt display of grief amidst a backdrop of bystanders unfazed by her public collapse—their apathy humorously juxtaposing the clear distress and vulnerability of her position. I couldn’t help but empathize with these images. Crouse’s performance portraits candidly capture the prevailing attitude toward mental illness from the public sphere—chary of engaging with madness, the bystanders lean away from the situation.

In capitalist society, where one’s success or failure is deemed the onus of the individual, precarity is often seen as a personal failing and is thus met with disdain. Dominant discourse pathologizes madness as a dysfunction within the individual, conveniently dismissing the overarching social, political and economic issues that marginalize the affected. Mainstream coverage of mental illness, such as the trending commoditization of self-care and brand-first corporate activism of campaigns like #BellLetsTalk, remains deluged by liberal empathy and void of any actual social or systemic change. In contrast to these surface-level discussions, RWM delivered refreshing narratives divergent from the stigma-based tropes and clinical textbook definitions that litter our collective understanding of madness. Comprised of films, artworks and live performances, the festival created a space for validation and communal healing through intersectional works that effectively inform and humanize perceptions of mental illness and addiction.

The spotlight film of RWM, Bedlam (2019), challenges the institutional systemization of mental illness by examining the effects of deinstitutionalization in America. Directed by psychiatrist Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, the documentary follows a group of individuals living with chronic mental illness as they navigate the lacunae of resources and accessible long-term aid that vanished alongside their in-patient care. Rosenberg casts a light on vastly under-resourced psychiatric emergency rooms—where overwhelmed staff are only able to provide quick-fix care to those in need of lifelong treatment—and jails, packed with prisoners who should be patients. Through intimate insights spanning five years of each subject’s life, Bedlam humanizes madness, and breaks down a faulty, sanist system that continues to discriminate against and oppress those who never chose to be ill.

Trista Suke’s quirky part-fiction, part-autobiography, part-documentary Foxy (2018) addressed another facet of the vulnerability attached to being othered, and expressed the strength that comes from reclaiming one’s narrative. Suke, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, effectively uses Foxy as a way to publicly come out with her alopecia, and explores the impact of chronic illness on mental health. After years of hiding her hair loss from the world, Suke flaunts her story with this original, whimsical piece while also making room for others to share experiences of living with baldness through direct-to-camera interviews. In doing so, Suke enacts community support as an empowering and healing force for a group of people who have experience with baldness and its associated social stigma.

By showcasing stories that come from such diverse communities and lived perspectives, this festival controverts the stigma-generated alienation and anxiety that isolates those in need of human connection. But the true success of RWM might be measured by Workman Arts’s equal commitment to the diverse needs of their audience as to their programming. Attending the events, it was clear inclusivity and accessibility were at the forefront of each decision. Despite my debilitating anxiety, I felt safe in a space that recognized and validated my existence; not only could I view relatable works from mad makers with intersectional identities, I was able to do so within an environment that encouraged my being there. Alongside accessibility measures such as pay-what-you-wish tickets, open captions and ASL interpreters, each event had a relaxed viewing policy that allowed audience members to leave the theatres as needed. Further, RWM provided a Held Space at each location, which functioned as a quiet refuge outside the event with an active listener and material for stimming.

By creating a safe space to meet with madness and precarity head on, RWM allowed for a larger, more rounded discussion of the entanglement of these issues. Each artwork and Q&A panel was an expression of vulnerability, which innately provoked that of myself and others; after screenings and performances, I found myself speaking candidly about my own experiences with mental illness. Within the 10-day span of the festival, I felt able to disclose my social anxiety in conversations and let go of my incessant need to appear neurotypical in public spaces. With an awareness that stigma leads to discrimination, which begets further systemic oppression, RWM productively challenges the pervasive ableism of mainstream narratives with trauma-informed lived experiences.

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