Willard Suitcases Chris Johnston


In 1995, a handful of forgotten suitcases were discovered in the recently closed Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York, untouched since their owners checked in many years before. Inspired by the photographs of these bags taken by Jon Crispin, The Willard Suitcases is a world-premiere musical that imagines the lives that packed these bags, some funny, some strange, some tragic, and all very, very human. Ethan McSweeny directs this world premiere featuring the Olivier, Drama Desk, and Helen Hayes award-nominated Nancy Anderson (West End’s Kiss Me Kate, Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard).

“The most intriguing musical to have its world premiere in the greater Washington region in some time,” – The Washington Post


Dr. Ralph Presents | Friday, October 4, 18 and November 8, 22, 29 at 5:00pm – Tickets

Discovery Space Workshop | Sunday, October 20 and December 1 at 11:00am – Reserve a spot

Talkback Thursdays | Every Thursday after the performance

“Case Studies” Photo Gallery | Blackburn Inn thru Dec. 1

Contains adult content. ASC welcomes children age 7+

Runs approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes

Buy Tickets


Stuff That Happened
  • Emulating the Quaker tradition, early mental hospitals in the United States emphasized moral treatment, a combination of kindness, structure, healthy food, and regular physical activity. Care of this kind was a response to institutions like the infamous Bethlem Royal Hospital in London.
  • The first mental hospital in the United States, Eastern Lunatic Asylum, opened in Williamsburg, VA, in 1773. More followed, including Western State Hospital in Staunton, VA, in 1828.
  • In 1865, the New York legislature authorized the building of a hospital for the “chronic insane” living in poorhouses and prisons across New York State. Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane and Insane Poor admitted its first patients on October 13, 1869.
  • Willard quickly exceeded its 1,500 patient capacity, becoming the largest mental asylum in the United States by 1877. By 1900, Willard State Hospital (renamed in 1890) had more than 100 buildings and a train line through the nearly 1,000-acre grounds. Willard was a self-sustaining community and patients provided most of the labor until the 1970s.
  • In the mid-1950s, Thorazine and other psychotropic drugs became widely available. These drugs largely replaced restraints and shock treatments, and provided treatment options outside of institutionalization.
  • In 1955, inpatient numbers nationwide peaked at nearly 560,000 inpatients. The deinstitutionalization movement, a series of legislative changes aiming to significantly reduce inpatient numbers, began in the 1960s. Most long-term psychiatric care facilities closed by the mid-1990s, with an inpatient population of 71,000 people nationwide.
  • When Willard Psychiatric Center (renamed in 1974) closed its doors in 1995, the remaining 135 patients were sent to their families, other institutions, or into community care.
  • Over Willard’s 126 years, approximately 54,000 patients entered the asylum and half of those patients stayed for the rest of their lives. A total of 5,776 patients are buried in Willard Cemetery.
  • Upon Willard’s closing, staff member Beverly Courtwright found 400 suitcases of former patients. The New York State Museum acquired the suitcases and thoroughly cataloged and documented their contents in the years that followed.
  • In 2004, photographer Jon Crispin encountered twelve of the suitcases when they were exhibited by the museum. Crispin secured an invitation to photograph the suitcases and the Willard Suitcases Project ( began in 2011.
  • Julianne Wick Davis saw the suitcases, met Jon Crispin, and began to write a song cycle based on his photographs.
  • Original compositions, a world premiere production, and stories unpacked ensue.
Teaser Trailer

Watch featured actor Nancy Anderson sing “Look In My Window” – a haunting preview of The Willard Suitcases.

Bonus Event: "Case Studies"

Photos from ASC’s The Willard Suitcases

September 25 — December 1
The Blackburn Inn, third-floor gallery | 301 Greenville Ave, Staunton

Internationally award-winning photographer and ASC graphic designer Lauren Parker showcases the hauntingly beautiful photographs captured for The Willard Suitcases. Shot in the old wards of Staunton’s Western State Asylum, this exhibit imagines the wisps of stories of patients from long ago.

The photos you see on our website are just the beginning…from black and white portraits to stunningly detailed photographs of the hospital’s interior – this gallery is a gorgeous tribute to The Willard Suitcases.