Herberger Institute performance at Icehouse will explore writing, women and madness

(Carolyn Corcoran/DD)
ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts is putting on “Asylum,” an experimental performance at the Icehouse. The play, which will feature audience participation, depicts the treatment of women in mental institutions. (Carolyn Corcoran/DD)

The performance art project “Asylum,” put on by professors at ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at the Icehouse, will portray the treatment of women in early 20th century mental institutions.

The “Asylum” performance is not a traditional play, said Rachel Bowditch, the co-director and Herberger associate professor.

“The performance is in the similar style of Punchdrunk, an artistic group based out of England. It is an experiential, choose-your-own-adventure type style,” she said. “It is a way for the audience to be immersed in the experience.”

“Each person is going to have a completely different experience,” she added.

Eileen Standley, co-director, choreographer and professor at the ASU School of Dance, agreed with Bowditch.

“It’s not like a typical play where people sit down and watch it. The audience actually participates,” she said.

While every attendee will enter the Icehouse building at the same time, the performance will split off and go in different directions, Bowditch said.

“The audience has to choose who they’re going to follow,” she said.

The Icehouse was specifically chosen as the location for “Asylum” for its environment and look of solitary confinement, Bowditch said.

The Icehouse is located in the heart of downtown’s warehouse district and was originally an ice manufacturing plant in the 1920s. It is now characterized by crumbling columns, paint-chipped walls and darkly lit rooms.

“We are only amplifying the stage, we are not transforming it,” Bowditch said. “It already looks surprisingly like an asylum. All we had to do is add some sound and lighting to it.”

The only thing the graduate students have done is add dozens of televisions as well as wires and cables, Standley said.

“There are about 40 or 50 televisions and surveillance. It was built with a lot of the wires to symbolize the nervous system of the asylum,” Standley said.

A lot of research was done in order to know what actually went on in an old asylum, both Standley and Bowditch said.

“I’m drawing on different women’s stories throughout history, but it’s done in a very abstract way,” Bowditch said.

Sources of inspiration for “Asylum” included “Ten Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the poetry of Anne Sexton and “Madness and Civilization” by Michel Foucault, Bowditch said.

“We’ve been investigating the treatment of the female patient in the asylum during the turn of the century,” Standley said.

“Asylum” is the final segment of a three-part performance, comprehensively titled The Muse Trilogy. Some of the research from the other parts, which date back to 2006, has been saved for “Asylum,” Bowditch said.

Julie Rada, a performer and graduate student in the School of Theatre, said they have been working on “Asylum” since January and started rehearsing in September.

“We have been working four times a week,” she said. “There has been physical work, improvisational work, doing some writing and continuing to research.”

Bowditch said there will be a total of 10 performers — five dancers, four actors and an aerialist.

A grant from the Herberger Institute that Bowditch applied for funded the performance. Crew members and performers are paid through this grant as well.

Performances will begin at 7:30 Thursday through Saturday. The Icehouse is located on 429 W. Jackson St.

Tickets are $10 for the general audience and $5 for students with ID.

Contact the reporter at joshuaadel@yahoo.com

Correction: Nov. 21, 2013

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the performers and crew members were all volunteers. They are all paid through the Herberger Institute grant that Bowditch received for “Asylum.”