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Creating a Madhouse

July 01, 2018 - 7 minute read

Tony Vezner and the poster for 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I was looking for good scripts and decided to go off the beaten track and see if there was something that was free of copyright that could be adapted,” says Tony Vezner, a professor in Concordia University Irvine’s theatre department.

His search for Victorian adventures turned up mostly books about soldiers and daredevils. Then he came across Ten Days in a Madhouse, which was written in serial form for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper before being published as a book in 1887. Bly (real name: Elizabeth Cochran) was an aspiring journalist who accepted an editor’s challenge to have herself declared insane so she could get into a mental institution on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island) in New York City and write about what she saw. Her articles about abuse in the asylum made her a celebrity, and caused the city of New York to give $1 million more per year for the care of the insane.

Concordia University Irvine alumnus Katie Foggiano ’15, now with the First Floor Theater in Chicago, was recruited early on to serve as a dramaturg, helping Vezner imagine and create a world true to the script in its dialogue, settings and behaviors.

“Because we started with a book, not a script, we had to figure out what needed to be fictionalized and what should stay true,” Foggiano says. “We did workshops. Professor Vezner would write chunks of text and I would come in with background on variations of mental disorders and some history of the treatment, and we would improvise some scenes.”

Foggiano says Madhouse was the first big project she was asked to dramaturg.

“It was a great honor to be given the experience,” she says. Though she graduated before it was produced, her work on the play helped launch her into a full-time career in theaters in San Diego, Chicago and Louisville where she has helped to develop 35 new plays in casting, as assistant director, and as producer.

“Vez has such a great knack for inspiring people to delve into what they’re passionate about,” Foggiano says.

After those initial workshops, the process of adapting Madhouse slowed as Vezner pondered plot and presentational difficulties. When students caught wind of the project, however, they always expressed excitement. Theater major Kyleigh Hoye ’18 assisted Vezner with the script as part of an internship, and acted in the play.

“The second he told me about the story of this woman, I read the entire book and realized it was an important story that should be told,” Hoye says.

She and other students pressured Vezner to finish and present the play before they graduated, and Vezner’s colleagues encouraged him to announce that the play would be part of the 2017-18 theatre season before the script was finished.

“Having a deadline was a really good thing to move the script out of the research and workshop phase,” Vezner says.

Worried actress grabbing the face of another actress

Hurdles remained. To begin with, what did mental illness inside that asylum look and sound like? How could they depict it accurately?

Hoye was given the task to meet with professor Elizabeth Vega in Concordia University Irvine’s nursing department to gain insight into the mental disorders that characters would have, and how that would manifest on stage, physically and audibly.

“I asked questions like, ’What does low-level schizophrenia look like versus high-level? Or a combination of schizophrenia and paranoia? How would that manifest?’” Hoye says. She then made cards for each actress telling her how to manifest that disorder.

“If somebody’s hearing voices, what are they hearing? Where is it coming from? What images are coming into their head?” Vezner says. “Once you give young people a framework to work in, their imaginations run wild. They created a whole culture, a whole new environment inside our asylum. They felt a real sense of ownership in getting their patients’ ailments right.”

Part of creating that environment involved a first rehearsal that was “very irregular,” Hoye says. Vezner designated five students to play nurses, and the rest were asylum patients. He instructed the patients, “Do everything you can to not be taken to the other side of the room. Go.”

The result was “we had to put down our social norms and be very primal and do everything we could to not be taken to the other side,” Hoye says. “At first it felt strange, but we had to realize you can’t be self-conscious doing this show. That broke the ice.”

The next challenge was to tactfully depict uglier aspects of asylum life, particularly some of the treatments which amounted to nothing less than physical and sexual abuse.

We did a ton of research on how female mental patients were treated in that day.

“We did a ton of research on how female mental patients were treated in that day,” Vezner says. “That’s what most students’ time was spent on, to find out what treatment was like, using sources outside of Nellie’s book.”

They learned that in the 1800s it was believed that women became hysterical when fluid built up in their wombs. So-called treatments ranged from the undignified to the traumatizing. How to depict those?

“That was one of the really big decisions: how to portray the sexual assault scenes, for obvious reasons,” Hoye says. “My thought was we could do it very poetically so it wouldn’t be gratuitous. But Professor Vezner said something important: ’We can’t sugarcoat this and pretend it was something poetic. But we also can’t make it gratuitous.’”

“That was my main worry,” Vezner says. “If we ran into a problem where we couldn’t tell this story fully and still protect our students from feeling compromised, we were in trouble.”

They decided to present the treatments in silhouette behind a curtain while the treatment method was described medically to the audience by actresses playing nurses.

Because of the heaviness of some of the material, Vezner found it helpful to end rehearsals with a technique called emotional cool-down, to “brush off any darkness so students could go back to normal life without carrying that.” It involved shaking out their arms and legs, deep synchronized breathing, spinal roll-downs—and group prayer.

“That’s what makes Concordia the perfect place to do this,” Vezner says. “It’s not just shaking it off and breathing, but everybody can pray together and support each other.

That spiritual element adds a level of support that’s more significant.”

Students continued to be deeply involved in the creation of the play as opening night approached.

“There were times when I would crowdsource their input and ask, ’What should happen from your character’s point of view?’” Vezner says. “They saw what it’s like when the script can be fluid. You can cut or change lines. It was the first time many of them had ever worked in a situation like this, as opposed to a script we get from a publishing house and hold as sacred because the contract says you can’t change the text.”

The story showed Bly’s inner conflict as she tried to rescue inmates she befriended in the asylum, and the difficult, real-life result. Historically, after Bly’s newspaper articles came out, a grand jury investigation revealed that many of the women in her book were no longer there and that the abuses had been cleaned up. Some believed the asylum made quick changes to avoid punishment, and that some of Bly’s friends were hidden or even killed.

“To simultaneously be this hero who raised $1 million for insane treatment and have people you cared about tucked away, killed or shipped off somewhere, you know you’re responsible because you exposed it in the newspaper,” Vezner says.

The play’s program spelled out for the audience exactly which parts were fictionalized and which were historical fact.

“We wanted the audience to have no reason to suspect that the story was made up or that we made these situations worse than they were,” Hoye says. “That gives it more credibility.”

The cast included twenty women and four men. The main lesson from Bly’s reports for Hoye was that “So many people were not actively doing the hurting, but were by-standing and turning blind eyes. It’s important to see these plays and make an extra effort to see that we have to do the right thing and not stand by when evil things happen.”

“Was it a challenge? Oh yeah, a huge challenge,” Foggiano says. “[But] I enjoyed watching how it all developed. There was something so thrilling when Vez announced he was going to actually produce the play this year. To see the finished product is truly a gift.”

Each show ended with a question-andanswer session with the audience. Hoye’s favorite response came from a girl who said, “Thank you for doing a play about the real stuff.”

Vezner is proud of the student input that brought Madhouse to life.

“The students had a lot of impact on it,” he says. “Giving me perspective during the research period was invaluable. And I learned a lot from them in rehearsal and made adjustments as I saw and heard it out loud. There’s a lot of their personalities in these characters now.”

They may try another original in the future, and Vezner hopes it will be written by one of his colleagues in the Concordia theatre department—with student help.

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