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Victoria Fringe Festival performers speak out

During its 28-year history, the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival has been a breeding ground for theatrical trends.

During its 28-year history, the Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival has been a breeding ground for theatrical trends. In past years, shows with “sex” in the title (a presumed audience-getter), clowning, spoken-word performances and dance works have all been popular.

There are plenty of magic shows this season. Intriguingly, there are also a handful of shows in which performers use their own psychological struggles as fodder for theatre. Some critics call it “art as therapy.” The Times Colonist spoke to three of these artists.

SEVEN, Broken Rhythms, Aug. 21, 23, 25, 29, 30, 31 at Metro Studio.

A dance piece examining the seven stages of grief (such as shock, denial, anger and guilt) may not sound like the jolliest evening.

“We do have a happy ending,” said Victoria’s Dyana Sonik-Henderson, who choreographed SEVEN for her award-winning dance troupe, Broken Rhythms,

The 28-year-old was so keen to land a spot in the Victoria fringe festival, she and fellow dancers took turns waiting in a line all day and night to land one of 10 early-bird spots offered to local companies. Her enthusiasm belies the fact Sonik-Henderson struggled with depression during the past year.

After two successful seasons, during which Broken Rhythms won four “Pick of the Fringe” awards, Sonik-Henderson found her company was in shambles. All but one of the dancers had moved on (the reasons were various: one became a mother, another moved to New York City). Meanwhile, the company lost its funding and rehearsal space.

“This is when most people give up,” said Sonik-Henderson, who questioned whether it was worth continuing with her dance company.

She found inspiration in an unlikely place. Sonik-Henderson, who is completing a sociology degree at the University of Victoria, took a class on the subject of death and dying. Studying the seven stages of grief was “cathartic” for the choreographer, who realized she was going through this herself because the troupe had fallen apart.

Not only did taking the course make her feel better, she decided the seven stages of grief would be an excellent subject for another dance piece.

She rounded up new dancers, rehearsal space at Dance Victoria and created SEVEN.

The 50-minute work for four dancers explores the paralyzing, shocking and ultimately freeing aspects of the grieving process. Sonik-Henderson says her style of choreography, blending elements of jazz and contemporary dance, has a “strong animalistic element to it.”

For her, academic life is a strong source of inspiration. Sonik-Henderson’s previous dance works have been inspired by studies of Grimm’s fairy tales and evolution.

“Actually,” she said with a smile, “all my shows have been based on UVic courses that I take.”

The Lion, the Bitch and the Wardrobe, Sharon Mahoney, Aug. 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 at Victoria Event Centre.

Sharon Mahoney has been a performer ever since taking Second City improv classes in Toronto as a teen. With a long career as a busker and comedian, the 42-year-old comes across as forthright and confident. So it may be a surprise to learn that four years ago she began experiencing acute panic attacks.

It was beyond frightening for her.

“I can say it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Mahoney, who tells of her experiences in her comedy show, The Lion, the Bitch and the Wardrobe.

“I have a friend with two children who said if she had to experience labour again or panic attacks, she’d rather go through labour.”

Mahoney underwent cognitive therapy. Her doctor explained her panic attacks were a fight-or-flight response akin to being “confronted by an angry, hungry lion that wanted to eat me. But there was no lion.”

She added: “Basically, my show is a comedy show about my battle with the lion.”

Mahoney believes her panic attacks were triggered by anxieties that built up as she got older. Based in Victoria, Vancouver and Australia, Mahoney regularly tours the world. Her anxieties were rooted in the feeling she was, as an itinerant female performer, “not living the conventional life” prescribed by society: family, home, white-picket fence.

Oddly, her panic attacks didn’t happen during shows. In performance, Mahoney says she feels focused, at peace and “in the moment.” It was during her off-stage hours that the lion reared its head.

Although the Victoria fringe festival marks the official debut of The Lion, the Bitch and the Wardrobe, she’s already offered samples of the show in comedy clubs. Joking about panic attacks has helped lessen their frequency. Afterward, audience members approached Mahoney to say she made them feel better about their own problems with anxiety and panic.

Today, Mahoney says she embraces the psychological challenges she’s weathered, since coping with them has given insight into herself and increased empathy for others.

That said, she doesn’t pretend The Lion, the Bitch and the Wardrobe is a personal mission to relieve the world’s ills.

“I’m a performer — a comedic performer,” Mahoney said. “I’m not a therapist.”

Medicine, T.J. Dawe, Aug. 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31 at Langham Court Theatre.

The most singular entry in this year’s therapy-becomes-art arena is a solo show starring T.J. Dawe, one of the stars of the Canadian fringe theatre circuit.

Renowned for his cerebral, self-deprecating monologues, Dawe brings his 2012 show, Medicine, to the Victoria fringe festival for the first time. The 90-minute show is inspired by his experience of taking ayahuasca, an Amazonian psychotropic drug, during a therapeutic retreat near Victoria three years ago.

The gathering was led by Vancouver doctor and writer Gabor Maté, who regularly conducted them until the RCMP stopped him. (Maté, who recently wrote a book on the therapeutic use of ayahuasca, still leads these retreats in Mexico, Dawe says).

Dawe was a fan of Maté’s teaching when he signed up for the 2011 retreat. He believed it would help him with feelings of alienation. The event took place in a yurt, albeit a deluxe one with hardwood walls and skylights.

Taking the drug — administered during hours of shamanistic chanting — made Dawe feel nauseated for hours. Yet when he tried it again, the result was “one of the most transcendent, cathartic experiences I’ve ever had.”

Taking ayahuasca is said to help the recipient tap into forgotten memories. Dawe recalled a traumatic childhood experience (he asked that it not be revealed, as it’s intended as one of Medicine’s surprises).

It also helped reconcile Dawe with a secret (again, he asked that it not be revealed) that he believed was so horrific, it was making him a pariah.

“I honestly thought some of my best friends weren’t going to be willing to make eye contact with me any more after knowing this about me,” he said.

For Dawe, performing a show in which his dark side is fully revealed made him realize he’s not a bad person after all. In that way, Medicine has been therapeutic.

However, Dawe — who has scored critical raves for the show in other cities — says he’s always aware his first priority is to entertain and engage his audience.

“If I was simply doing it to purge some emotions I have and not let the audience come on a ride, then forget it, I should do that in private.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com