This past Tuesday, the Binghamton University Arts Museum presented a one-woman show called “The Asylum Project,” written and performed by Elizabeth Mozer, an associate professor in the theatre department.
The performance took place in the main gallery of the Fine Arts Building, which houses the exhibit “Michal Heiman: Chronically Linked.” The show is based on the lives of Agnes — a Polish immigrant — psychiatric hospital patients Rose, Willa and Bonnie and Lina, the child of Agnes. Mozer draws from personal accounts, historical documents and imaginings to create a fictionalized world of asylum experience within the context of real-life stories within these characters.
The solo performance aimed to focus the narrative on Agnes and her experience in the asylum after being separated from her daughter due to a traumatic house fire. Both believed the other had died. However, unknown to Lina, her mother had survived, becoming a patient at the Binghamton State Hospital for decades. It wouldn’t be until 64 years after their separation that the two would reunite. In this performance, Mozer transforms back and forth between the three patients of the asylum throughout the play and portrays their perspectives on Agnes’ condition. Drawn from personal accounts, historical documents and imaginings, stories that were once silenced are now given voice by Mozer’s captivating performance.
Mozer described her inspiration behind “The Asylum Project.”
“I had the pleasure of taking a tour of the asylum in 2015 with other faculty members,” Mozer said. “The woman who was giving me the tour shared a particular story with me while I was there that captured my heart, soul and imagination for years to come and fueled me to do the research and the creative work that I did to create this piece.”
The piece is broken up into three separate scenes where we follow the inner thoughts of Rose, Willa and Bonnie. Mozer crafted each character to have specific movements that were distinguishable to them and reflected their personality. The audience was invited into three separate, intimate spaces to see these characters express their experience in the asylum while simultaneously giving their perspective on Agnes’ mental state.
Mozer explained the process of bringing these characters to life.
“I am interested in physical dramaturgy — how people move and how that relationship between the outer behavior and the inner life are connected and how the two feed each other,” Mozer said. “Having a really clear physical life helped anchor me as the actor to navigate and do those transitions quickly.”
Mozer continued to emphasize the importance of finding inspiration for her play within a historical context.
“All that life and history was really present in the building, and it was very moving to me,” Mozer said. “I felt different after having been there and then learning the remarkable story about Agnes.”
Claire Kovacs, the curator of collections and exhibitions at BU, described “The Asylum Project’s” connection to Heiman’s exhibit as both pieces working together to explore the practices that go on within an asylum. In addition, Kovacs said the pieces break down the complex identities of individuals who experience such practices. There is also a visual similarity, as Mozer wears a dress that is akin to the outfit in Heiman’s art piece known as the “Dress Project.”
Mozer’s performance in “The Asylum Project” is one that is filled with a genuine interest in the lives of these individuals. She captures their emotions and mannerisms in a way that will leave the watcher with a deep insight into a few experiences of asylum patients.
“When I heard this real-life story, this remarkable journey of love, you know, love across time, place and circumstance coming together, it was worthwhile in getting to explore that,” Mozer said.