Playwright Erin Vandenberg on the making of Salt

In the lead up to the world premiere of Salt, the L&W blog will be featuring interviews with the creative women behind the project. Our first instalment is with playwright Erin Vandenberg. 

Salt playwright Erin Vandenberg was inspired by real-life events when she started writing the story of Vivian, an abusive alcoholic, who is ultimately confronted by her daughters Lilias and Petal:

I first noticed a headline from a news story similar to the play’s story. It didn’t have a lot of details about the girls involved, as they were young offenders and protected, but I wasn’t shocked by their crime. Unfortunately, it felt like a thing that could happen under certain circumstances. Circumstances that are far more ordinary than maybe we care to admit. And there were a lot of similar issues in my own family to a degree, and I suspect in a lot of families.

I didn’t research the true story, which I believe had a social media element and co-conspirators. What I was interested in: what had been happening in that home; what was it like having an unapologetic, alcoholic mother; and what did it do to those daughters. And I was interested in what it was like for mother, too, who had this addiction, which is also a disease, who perhaps had something in her past or her genes that she was using alcohol to cope with. When it came to writing Salt, there were many aspects to consider including the kind of empathy that it takes to embrace both sides of the story.

The characters in Salt are based on some of my real experiences with mental illness, and with real suffering. And I think of these characters as worthy of compassion even at their worst.

 Playwright Erin Vandenberg

Playwright Erin Vandenberg

The characters in Salt suffer in the environment created by Vivian, and also from a family history of unaddressed mental illness. This created a rich ground for storytelling, and even a few surprising moments for the playwright: 

With the play’s younger daughter Petal, I thought of her as suffering from undiagnosed depression - something as both a part of her environmental circumstances and also her own nature - there’s certainly a line of mental illness through the family I created. I think it’s easy to adhere to cultural stereotypes about what someone with depression or mental illness looks like, and acts like. We only think of the dramatic moments (of which there are many), and that’s when we care. It can be hard to believe that there is something normal, or banal or even boring about mental illness. Or that those who suffer don’t want things, or laugh, or can feel joy, or be decisive. But to me, that’s part of the “ordinariness” of depression, the living with it day in and day out. That’s part of the tragedy.

There’s a moment in Act 2 where something shocking happens, and it really came from Petal. It was unexpected. It was decisive. In some ways, it was “out of character” for someone living with depression, or what we may think that is. But she really needed to take this action, and she did. When I write I set a certain amount of parameters, while still allowing for the freedom of discovery. If the need of the character is strong enough, they can do anything. And it’s the same for people. 

The world premiere of Salt runs from September 17-28, 2016 in Toronto at Alumnae Studio Theatre. For tickets: www.larkandwhimsytheatre.com/salt or saltlarkandwhimsy.brownpapertickets.com.