My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

The Ties That Bind: survival, compassion and dark comedy


For eight years, actor/playwright James Ince has been working on an intense semi-autobiographical The Ties That Bind. The play dramatizes the struggle to be what society calls normal, not always easy for lead character Sam Word who is struggling with both being gay and having a mental illness. Ince says The Ties That Bind is about surviving rather than suffering, and he is eager to discuss.

The Ties That Bind is billed as a “brutally dark comedy.” How do you balance those three elements?

James Ince: I try to bring some humour to it, some light unto the darkness. Though Sam is plagued by life, and even his very existence, his outlook on this world is both quirky and touching.

Why did you choose theatre as the medium for, as you write in the press release, "continuing this conversation" about mental illness?

It simply made the most sense to me. Theatre, particularly The Ties That Bind, is not safe. It is very much in your face. Theatre allows both the audience and the performer go on a journey together and with the subject of mental illness, closeness is discomfort. The Ties That Bind shows a different angle of someone living with mental illness. Sam Ward does not have crazy hair, he is not homeless, he does not talk to himself nor rock back and forth. He may not be mentally well, but he is not "crazy."

Why should an audience be eager to meet Sam Ward?

He represents what so many people live with everyday: fear, self deprecation, the life-long effects of bullying, self doubt, the desire to fit in yet to still be apart from and be ourselves.

How does the character Sam Ward differ from the creator James Ince?

Sam Ward is more attuned to a dark shadow of my past. Likely the biggest difference is that I am actually happy now, or, at the very least, happier. Many of the issues that Sam is dealing with were some of my issues, issues I have had some closure with in only very recent history. Since The Ties That Bind is semi-autobiographical, many things that Sam goes through, I did not. Though the setting of the play and the state that we find Sam Ward in may not be relatable to everyone, at the core of the piece is emotions and insecurities that we all feel, some we feel far more often than we would ever care to admit aloud.

People often don’t get help for mental illness because they are ashamed. Was that a struggle for you in creating and performing a semi-autobiographical piece?

To be honest, not really a struggle in itself. For me this is such an important message that goes far beyond "illness." It is about how we treat ourselves and others as people and as equals, something humans tend not do very well. It is true, I'm afraid that there are so many who cannot and will not seek treatment, I know several people in that situation and as a result, they are not here anymore.

What do you hope an audience is thinking as they leave the show? What do you hope they feel?

My greatest hope is that people are not just thinking but are continuing to have a conversation about mental illness that is, thankfully, happening more often. Though it seems to happen most intensely only after a celebrity has died of suicide. People should not have to die for us to open our hearts and minds to compassion and understanding.

A person with a mental illness is referred to as a crazy, a schizophrenic, a manic-depressive, etc, whereas a person has a cold or heart disease, or is a person with cancer or HIV. Or for that matter has brown hair or blue eyes. Why do you think mental illness defines a person linguistically, and hence in our minds, as opposed to the way other illnesses and characteristics are only an addition?

Well, that actually is a very large part of the problem right there, linguistics. You notice I did state "died of suicide" as opposed to "committed" suicide. The word committed implies that someone has done something wrong, a crime. Most people who die of suicide simply do not have a choice or an option. Life has been far too painful for far too long and there is literally no other way, for them, to end the suffering. The hope is to have them receive the help they require before there is only one option. One way I see that happening, is through compassion. We as a society could really use a mental health assessment. I mean that quite literally, mental health is such a big part of our overall health, one's annual physical should have a very large component regarding one's emotional and mental well being.

Homosexuality was once classified as a mental illness. And linguistically a person is gay as opposed to having a sexual preference. How do the struggles intersect? Are they similar? Which stigma is harder to overcome?

There are always parallels between one struggle for equality and compassion to another, whether it be civil rights, indigenous rights, women's rights or animal rights. I think it really depends on one's personal journey. For me, being queer in the workplace was definitely an issue, depending on the job.  Though, more and more it seems as relevant as one's hair colour. With mental illness in the workplace, I think we have a long way to go still. We have come so far, but I fear we are another generation away before things really come together. One can still get fired or "laid off" in this country for being gay, or pregnant or taking too many sick days. The bosses simply have to come up with another reason to let you go, such as cut-backs or work shortages.

The Ties That Bind is a one-man-show but you have a long list of heavy-hitting collaborators. How did they help shape the final product?

First of all, it is such a long list because so many people in the Toronto theatre scene are so incredibly generous and caring. I also think that not just artists, but people in general are really waking up to the issue of mental illness and mental health. I am so grateful to each of them, that they all gave everything they had to this piece.

What’s next for James Ince?

I really do try to live a day at a time. Quite likely the next thing will be a good long nap! A really nice cup of coffee. There are more ideas bouncing around, more things to say. continuing to grow as an artist and a person. Most of all, the biggest hope for myself and for everyone is to be well.

The Ties That Bind runs Wed, Nov 4 to Sun, Nov 8 at Theatre Passe-Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson Ave.