Jan Derbyshire invites you to determine her mental state in solo production Certified

Jan Derbyshire has been many things in her life, notably a stand-up comedian, a performer and a playwright. She has also been “crazy,” and certifiably so. Drawing from her experience living with mental illness and coming out the other side, Derbyshire has created a performance which examines her current mental state, allowing the audience to make the final call as to where she’s at on the spectrum. This is Certified, and with humour and light-hearted examination, Derbyshire invites you into her world to better understand mental illness – with laughs. Many laughs.

The subject of mental illness is often painted in a very serious light, but with Certified, Derbyshire is taking a different tack.

“This show is definitely, I hope, a way of examining how we look at mental illness with a lighter touch,” says Derbyshire, “so I actually ask the audience to become a mental health review board, which is a very real thing. If you’re ever certified, which of course I was, if you don’t feel crazy anymore, you can decide to make your case to this very official mental health review board.”

The interesting thing which Derbyshire notes is the outcome of such a review board, stating that even though she, and many others, may be years from that experience, being re-certified as sane doesn’t happen. “I think there should be some paperwork or something,” she laughs, “So I just decided that I would like a wider spectrum of humanity to decide my current state of sanity, and I couldn’t think of a group more suited than people who actually still go to live theatre.”

Most accounts or perceptions of mental illness are pretty stereotypical, according to Derbyshire. “There’s a lot of mental health stories that follow the tropes, like if you go off your meds you’re going to kill somebody or yourself, or once you have a mental illness your life is over” — which, obviously, isn’t always the case.

Derbyshire adds, “It doesn’t make sense to me that that whole system shouldn’t be looked at, and (with me) that was certainly the case (where) there’s lots of other things we can do to live successfully with what they call mental illness.”

Certified, as a result, stems not only from knowing that it is a story that needs to be told, but also, for Derbyshire, from being a playwright and knowing how to tell it. “I have, over the years, written these solo shows which is kind of a way of catching up with myself and sharing a story that I think is not out there. I just think there are a lot of stories missing in the mental health canon and a few that really get told over and over again, either the tragedy and/or how hard it is to love somebody with a mental illness – those are the two super overdone ones. Those stories exist, but so do many others.”

And talking about these stories is difficult, no question. “It’s a tough thing to talk about,” Derbyshire explains, “we don’t know what words to use, we don’t know what we should laugh about, we all get uptight about it, but yet it’s so pervasive we all deal with mental health whether or not we’ve had diagnostic (tests) or not, so why are we so precious about this? Let’s poke at it a little bit. Because it’s just like we whisper about it yet everybody’s dealing with it — you know depression and anxiety are on the rise, what’s going on there? I want people to look at somebody who’s been in that system and (who has) come out the other side to really understand that once that happens to you your life is not over. It’s not a sentence that means your life is over. Your life might look different and you might have to figure out different ways of doing things, but you can.”

A good network of people around you is key in dealing with emotions and impulses when it comes to mental illness as well. “You can’t do it by yourself, right?” muses Derbyshire. “That’s another thing this show talks about, you have to have people that understand or even people who have gone through it themselves, some sense of community … because part of the show is about reclaiming our full spectrum of emotions. All of our behaviours are getting pathologized: if you’re too happy, if you’re too sad, if you’re too excited, if you’re too full of grief it all gets put into a diagnosis now and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got to speak back to this because we are deeply feeling creatures.’ ”

Addressing these tough subjects with humour, of which there is no shortage, is Derbyshire’s way. “I think it’s just one story and I always tell stories in a way that I hope will help other people tell the stories they need to tell … so, yeah, there’s humour, and it’s all directly audience-addressed because I come from a standup comedy background – I used to be a standup and supported my habit of playwriting for a long time – so I really like that connection with the audience and that they are really involved by the end, voting on my sanity. I’ve done this show before and it’s turned up all kinds of results and so we’ll see what Calgary thinks.”

(Photo courtesy Jan Derbyshire.)

Certified is presented by Handsome Alice Theatre and runs March 15 – 17 at the Joyce Doolittle Theatre, Pumphouse Theatres.

(If you would like to support independent local arts and culture journalism in Calgary, please consider becoming a patron of theYYSCENE by clicking here and donating to our Patreon campaign. Thank you.)

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE and her event listings page, The Culture Cycle. Contact her at