Ethan Persyko’s original play, to be released at the Hart House Drama Festival, addresses mental health from new angles.
By Isaiah Hazelwood, Trinity News Senior Editor, and Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
Content Warning: This article mentions topics of suicide, mental health, and their representation in drama. Contact University of Toronto Health and Wellness if you are in need of support.
The Hart House UofT Drama Festival, held virtually over the weekend of Mar. 25, is a showcase of completely original student-written, student-produced plays, open to students from all UofT campuses. This year, the competitors are mainly university theater clubs, including Trinity College’s Drama Society. However, one production, named Student #10, stands out for being written, directed, and produced independently of these groups.
Student #10 is about nine students grappling with the suicide of their friend, the titular tenth student. The writer and director Ethan Persyko described how the play’s concept was inspired by true events: “In high school, one of my acquaintances committed suicide. I say acquaintance very directly – she was only an acquaintance – but it still had a lot of impact on me, and a lot of impact on the whole community because it was the death of a community member.” They made it clear the play wasn’t intended to represent the real event, elaborating, “This unfortunately isn’t a tribute, and it would be unethical to present it like that. It’s not realistic to my experience, it’s a dramatization.”
Hasti Zahed, who is playing the Narrator, described the play’s approach to the topic of suicide. “While it is centered around a suicide, it doesn’t focus on the person who committed suicide. She’s there and it’s an overarching theme, but the main theme is the people who are left behind and the community leading up to and following the event.”
Persyko explained their play was inspired by other works that focus on community, even if they were about completely different topics. “The first inspiration I had was The Breakfast Club, just with the idea of many cliques all coming together and having to find commonalities with one another. Some people call it embarrassing, but I was inspired by Riverdale and Glee, too. They all have that common theme of students coming together.”
Beyond its inspirations, Persyko highlighted some unique creative elements of Student #10 which reinforce the play’s core ideas. Rather than being named, the student characters are only referred to by their numbers. Persyko described, “It sets an environment that reflects the theme. When people die, they are treated as a number or some statistic because as a society, we go on to forget their name and who they are.”
Persyko also hoped to reinforce this separation through the play’s Narrator. “The narration was a way to make distance from the characters. Rather than seeing all the characters involved as they all tackle the elephant in the room, we’re introduced to the Narrator, explaining the facts and the situation. We’re not necessarily having this overarching catharsis, because we’re still separated from them.” Zahed also empathizes with those aspects of her role, saying “I set the tone and introduce the characters, but I’m also the primary voice for the character who’s gone. I become a mediator for the narrative.”
However, many of the play’s elements are about overcoming separation. Persyko described that even though the character of Student #10 is dead, “She comes back from the dead, maybe literally as a spirit or maybe abstractly as friends’ thoughts. Student #10 is muted, but she demonstrates her relationships with others through motion. In one scene, she embraces her best friend. You can’t see it on stage, but in the script after that scene, the best friend Student #1 has their name revealed as Jane. Revealing the name highlights that the best friend is very much a person victimized by the tragedy, rather than another number.”
As the play was inspired by events in high school, Persyko said the mental health crisis at the University of Toronto wasn’t a major factor in their writing. While directing, they gave the actors freedom to interpret the story as they view it best.
“I’m not going to send an email to my actors with the statistics about university suicides. We all know what the play’s about, the weight of UofT’s mental health situation is on us all, but the play doesn’t need to be only about that.” Zahed leaned toward this interpretation in light of the university, saying that “when I read the characters and the cast list, I can almost picture people I know and associate with the characters’ struggles. It helps put more life into the work.”
Nevertheless, Persyko hoped audience members would see the connection between the play and their lives. “It’s related 100% to UofT, in the sense that it would be impossible for audience members not to compare what has been happening at UofT and university suicide rates with the play’s ideas.”
As the play covers serious topics, Persyko is very sensitive and careful in representing traumatic experiences. They promised, “There will 100% be content and trigger warnings” to ensure viewers know the play’s subject before viewing. While directing the play, they’ve aimed to be responsible with their depictions. “Instead of saying ‘here’s all the vivid detail of the suicide,’ I want to make it about the stakes and situations. It should be about the raw emotions of anger and sadness, not just saying the trigger word.”
Zahed appreciated Persyko’s careful representation of other mental health topics, beyond suicide. “It’s never just suicide, it’s never just anxiety, it’s never just depression, and the play talks about how those things intertwine. We see the struggles of the best friend character with school, with family, with the suicide, with her mental health. The main idea is how you don’t have to fit into one perfect box of mental illness, it’s more like a puddle.”
While casting, Persyko was open to actors of all races. They described, “mental health issues are experienced by everyone, even those in marginalized communities. I’m very thankful to have BIPOC individuals playing two characters, and I was more than happy to change the lead role’s race because it gives an opportunity for marginalized perspectives on mental health.”
But beyond the complexities of writing a play and representing difficult topics, Persyko and Zahed are both happy to have the opportunity to put on the production at Hart House. Persyko recounted, “I used to be the awkward theater kid who’d just watch the productions put on by Hart House theater. Two years ago, I was in the front row of Guys and Dolls almost reaching out for the stage, and now I’m there directing my own play. Taking my first steps on the stage was very much a pinch-me moment.”
Zahed agreed: “This is my first play, and we have these beautiful spiral-bound scripts which make it feel real. With COVID, everything is over Zoom, but now we have a physical script and the actual stage.”
Due to COVID, Student #10 was performed at the Hart House Theatre for an empty audience and recorded for release on the Theatre’s YouTube channel during the premier weekend of Mar. 25. After its debut, festival judges awarded the performance an Award of Merit for Outstanding Achievement in Community Building. Though Persyko was disappointed there won’t be a live audience, they hoped their play succeeded despite the medium.
“People in a theatre are often more interested than people watching through YouTube, but I hope the play’s important topics of suicide and mental health will wake people up from their couches and chairs so it becomes theater, and more than a YouTube video.”