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Paul Gross on madness and the creative process

Actor Paul Gross portrayed a mentally overwrought artistic director in the miniseries Slings and Arrows.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

Stratford Festival's second annual Shakespeare Slam includes a one-man cabaret-rock performance by Hawsley Workman, but the main event is a debate inspired by the theme of this year's festival, Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge. Participants include academics, professionals and singer-songwriter Steven Page (who has suffered from depression) and actor Paul Gross (famed for his portrayal of a mentally overwrought artistic director in the miniseries Slings and Arrows). We spoke to the latter.

The subject of this year's debate is whether or not madness is inherent in the artistic process. Who's on which side?

Steven is arguing that madness is not required as part of the creative process. And I'm arguing that it is. Neither of us are in any position to comment with any certainty, and I don't feel I'm an authority on mental illness per se. But I can talk about the creative process, which does have altered states involved in it. I'm actually not sure exactly what Steven's argument is going to be. Just that I'm wrong, I'm sure.

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Can you give us an idea of what your argument will be?

First, I would define madness as being slightly different from mental illness. I think madness is more closely aligned with shamanism or berserkers or oracles. I think most artists who are any good at their trade – and even those who aren't – go into a kind of altered state where your proper self recedes to the background and you can receive creative inspiration. It goes back to as far as we can look, and it's part of the process. But it's manageable. Or, at its best, it should be managed so that you can enter the state, return from the state, and your consciousness comes back to the foreground and tries to make sense of what you've discovered.

Gord Downie has said that his goal as a songwriter is to get out of his own way. Is that the same as the altered state you're talking about?

I think so. With the governor, the thing that controls you, you have to somehow put it in a closet for a little while, and then open it up and bring it back. I know that Kurt Vonnegut said the trick to writing, for him, was to get rid of his big brain. And yet, he does have to bring back that big brain to edit what he's written. It's being able to go in and out fluidly, and being able to call upon whatever you call the muse.

Getting into actual mental illnesses, what about the appeal of the so-called tortured artist?

Authenticity in an artist is what people respond to. But I think it's a bit mixed up, and for few centuries there's a been a romantic notion of the tortured artist. It can be difficult for audiences and artists to be able to separate a mental-health problem from inspiration. I don't think they are aligned necessarily.

So, you're not contending that artists with a mental illness have this weird reservoir of special inspiration or anything?

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Right, that's not what at all what I'll be arguing for. But that an artist finds, and uses as a tool, states that are akin to mental illness.

Shakespeare Slam happens April 23, 8 p.m. $29 to $54. Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. W., 416-408-0208, 1-800-567-1600 or tickets.rcmusic.ca.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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