Issue Box Theatre is a company that prioritizes presenting shows that raise awareness for mental health.
In conjunction with this theme, Issue Box Theatre is presenting “The Willard Suitcases,” both the gallery of photos and the musical those photos inspired.
The gallery features photos of suitcases found in the Willard Asylum after it closed in 1995. In 2011, photographer Jon Crispin documented these suitcases, which each have a different story to tell.
These 427 suitcases found in the Willard State Hospital’s attic are “remnants of lives forgotten,” Issue Box Theatre Artistic Director Rosie Best said.
A selection of Crispin’s photos will be on display at the Toledo Lucas County Main Branch Library Gallery, 325 N Michigan St., from June 8 to July 14.
To honor the gallery showing, Crispin came to the Toledo School for the Arts’ Porter Gallery, 333 14th St., to discuss the photos with an audience, talk about the history of Willard and how to use art for social justice.
Crispin’s photos inspired Composer Julianne Wick Davis to dive deeper into these stories and, instead of trying to recreate real people’s stories, researched the time period and formed a collection of stories that made sense for the cases.
Best heard a song from the show and reached out to Wick Davis to hear more of the show. After an Issue Box listening party, some local performers were invited to be a part of the production.
After rehearsing and preparing the show, Issue Box theater is performing “The Willard Suitcases” four separate times: 6:30 pm on June 8 at the Toledo Lucas County Main Branch Library, 7 pm on June 15 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 6 pm on June 28 at the Thomas M. Wernert Center and 7:30 pm on July 14 at Sylvania Northview High School.
“We are doing this production to bring visibility and dignity to those whose lives have often been dismissed, ignored, or silenced,” Best said.
A unique aspect of these performances is that the tickets are actually free. However, those who are willing and able are encouraged to make a donation.
“Theater can be very elitist,” Best said. “I didn’t want anybody to have any embarrassment around, ‘Oh, wait, I don’t have any money; I can’t come in.'”
Though “The Willard Suitcases” fits perfectly in with the mission of Issue Box Theatre, Best found her own experience with mental health made her even more passionate about this project.
“We do a lot better nowadays in talking about this,” Best said. “But we need to make more strides to make sure that nobody feels stigmatized by whatever it is that they’re dealing with.”
Many people who were institutionalized did not even have mental health struggles – instead, were sent away if they were women, queer or other identities that did not coincide with the patriarchal standards in society.
With the help of organizations like National Endowment for the Arts, Toledo Lucas County, The Arts Commission, Toledo Lucas County Library, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Lucas County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board, Sylvania Northview High School and the Thomas Wernert Center, Best and Issue Box Theatre hope these performances will educate the community on the harsh realities of the asylum’s history and of the importance of talking about mental health.
“Mental health awareness month was May, but we need to be aware of mental health June through April, too,” Best said. “Because it impacts how people function and behave in the world.”
For more information, visit issueboxtheatre.org.