A new theatre production at the University of Waterloo in Ontario is inspired by the life of New Brunswick teen Ashley Smith.

Smith, 19, of Moncton, choked to death in a prison cell at the Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, Ont., in 2007.

The mentally troubled teenager had tied a piece of cloth around her neck while guards stood outside her cell door and watched. They had been ordered by senior staff not to enter her cell as long as she was breathing.


A coroner's jury ruled the self-inflicted choking death of Moncton teen Ashley Smith in her prison cell was a homicide. (Courtesy of Ashley Smith's family)

An Ontario coroner's jury ruled in December Smith's death was a homicide.

Students in the university's theatre department have been working on the the production, From Solitary to Solidarity: Unravelling the Ligatures of Ashley Smithsince 2011 with the hopes of expanding the conversation about mental health.

The "auto-ethnographic performance" incorporates documentary footage and the personal perspectives of the student performers, who are about the same age Smith was when she died, said Professor Andy Houston, the director.

Each of the 13 actors connected with the play's theme, said Houston.

"A hundred per cent of the class took up this subject matter with great — I wouldn't say excitement, I think there was a kind of a lot of fear around mental health — but they were intrigued and they were connected to it personally, and for me, that's really important in the work that I do," he said.

'That really is an important aspect of the project, is really just to start getting people talking about mental health awareness.' - Prof. Andy Houston, director

The production was well-received on opening night Wednesday, said Houston, noting many of the audience members had a background in corrections.

"They were ecstatic that we're doing this project because it gets that conversation going about that part of society," he said.

"There's a lot of people, I think, who are concerned about mental health that also want the conversation that we're trying to encourage. And that really is an important aspect of the project, is really just to start getting people talking about mental health awareness and, as I said earlier, sort of normalizing the subject matter."

Following each performance, there is a question and answer session that invites critical reflection, discussion and feedback from the audience.

In the last year of her life, Smith was shuffled 17 times between nine institutions in five provinces.

The play, written by University of Waterloo drama alumna Melanie Bennett in collaboration with drama students, runs until March 22 at the Theatre of the Arts in the university's Modern Languages Building.