Audible Songs from Rockwood, presented as part of SummerWorks 2019, is songwriter Simone Schmidt’s haunting and surprisingly informative theatrical concert. It is a song-cycle based on case files of people incarcerated at Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1856 and 1881.
Schmidt opens with a succinct yet comprehensive history of the Rockwood Asylum. Happening on the topic by chance, she spent two years with inmate case files, focusing on the women, searching for some glimpse into their psyche and experience. What she found, though, was that the women themselves had been almost entirely eclipsed by the opinions of men—police, judges, doctors.
Schmidt draws a striking parallel between the on-going colonial erasure of Indigenous peoples and the systemic oppression of these women—and, ultimately, anyone who didn’t fit the euro-centric, patriarchal mold. Particularly unsettling is the revelation that “criminally insane” did not, at the time, refer to any rigorous definition of either insanity or criminality, but anyone deemed disruptive to societal conventions.
Reading between the official, institutional lines, she finds some essence of these women and their plight. Schmidt gives succinct and evocative introductions to each of the ten women to whom her songs pay tribute. How accurate are these musical representations? That can’t be known, but neither is it particularly important. There is a beautiful and vital empathy in this attempt to reach out to fellow human beings across the barrier of time. And, even more to the point: to give voice to those who challenge an oppressive, colonial agenda.
Drawing on a vibrant history of Appalachian music, Schmidt’s song’s have that haunting, folksy sound that feels old and familiar. I couldn’t always make out the lyrics and I suspect there is a great deal of resonance I missed. I’ll certainly be seeking out the album on which this show is based. I’d like to sink into the content more deeply than the 60 minutes allowed.
Designer Shannon Lea Doyle has set the stage with towering rectangles that feel eerily oppressive in the way they frame empty space. Director Frank Cox-O’Connell fills that space with a churning haze that hangs in the air and provides constant—though quite subtle—lighting shifts that suggest ghostly movement, a mournful presence called out from the past.
Schmidt’s vibe is casual and inviting, but there’s an unmistakable challenge in her husky voice—to question the systems of power that govern our lives. She presents that challenge with disarming candour and humour.
These women of Rockwood: their stories are heartbreaking, but there is a lightness of tone here, a jaunty quality to the presentation that gives us a chance to process it in our own way. With accompaniment from Carlie Howell (base) and Laura Bates (fiddle), this is a richly-rendered and bittersweet piece that lingers.