A THEATRICAL TREATMENT ON MENTAL ILLNESS
A recent report was published in the New York times, detailing Adam Lanza's psychological disorder. This excerpt stood out:
"It's not that his mental illness was a predisposing factor in this tragedy," Dr. Harold Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at Hartford Hospital's Institute of Living, said at a news conference held on Friday to discuss the report, of which he was an author. "It was his untreated mental illness that was a predisposing factor."
I just finished a two year long project, writing and directing a play addressing teens and mental illness, for the high school students at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood CA.
I have been teaching theatre at Campbell Hall for fourteen years. I am extremely fortunate to work in a community that promotes acceptance, and open mindedness. I am also fortunate to work with an administration that supports the arts. When I directed The Laramie Project in 2006, our chaplain brought in Judy Shepard as a guest speaker. After her gut wrenching, yet inspirational speech, she met with members of our thespian troupe to talk about the town and answer questions prepared by our thespian members. Our principal and several administrators sat in the meeting.
Flash forward to December 2012. After reading article after article about Newtown, Aurora, and many other tragedies, I was saddened into some sort of motivation. Each article about teens and violence somehow referenced mental illness. After a few months of research that consisted of listening to podcasts, reading the DSM and other books on the subject, and reading blogs written by mothers whose children suffer from mental illness, a story began to take shape.
By the way, I was terrified. I had written before, but never about something as important, delicate, and bold as this. I wanted to write about what went on behind the news stories. What were the economic, social, political, and personal conditioning forces fueling these tragedies? What happens in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the family, in the hearts of the
people involved? Also, I had never written for my high school students. I was afraid that the subject matter would be too intense and raw to bring to a school community. These tragedies were and are still so fresh. Would exploring them with high school students be imprudent? But this was something I absolutely needed to write and direct.
I wrote a proposal (about five pages) detailing story ideas, the research I would conduct, a timeline, and my desire to open up the community discussion through this project. I sent it to my administrators . About a week later, I was given the "green light." We were just finishing our spring musical production of Face The Music by Irving Berlin (I highly recommend it for high schools), which was great timing. I would spend April and May researching, writing character descriptions, and outlining plot points, so when summer hit I could jump into writing actual scenes.
I haven't experienced an energy quite like I felt during that summer of writing. I love teaching high school, and I love directing theatre, and I always feel motivated to wake up and tackle whatever work lay ahead; but writing a play for my students, that I would direct, in a theatre where I have spent most of my hours for the past fourteen years, with technical demands that I knew would be a healthy challenge with achievable success for our student designers and crew, felt different. I practically jumped out of bed to write every morning at 6:00 am...during the summer!
By July of 2013 I had a fairly comprehensible draft that I wanted to hear read. I am still in touch with a number of alumni who have majored in theatre programs around the country. I contacted as many former students as I could, and we held a two day play development workshop at Campbell Hall. I am so grateful for their invaluable critical input.
In May of 2014, I sent an email to all of the current Campbell Hall theatre students, announcing that the fall 2014 production would be an original play that I wrote, addressing teenage violence and mental illness. My fingers shook with nerves as I typed out a synopsis. However, that announcement marked the beginning of a great deal of support, enthusiasm, and creative energy from my students.
This past September 2014, after a challenging and intense audition week, a company of 36 actors, four student musicians (for scene change music and underscore), and a technical crew of fifteen launched into production of this new play titled The Mental State. Set in small rural American town, a working mother tries desperately and unsuccessfully to get help for her son who suffers from untreated mental illness. We examine a broken system and the fallout that can occur when a boy's cries for help are ignored by the community.
The rehearsal process was rich and fulfilling. The students were open to and excited about incorporating rewrites. I usually adapted lines of dialogue to suit various actors' energy. I learned which moments were overwritten and I made cuts in dialogue, learning that simply seeing an actor live the moment was more powerful. I readjusted the placement of monologues, intertwining them with scenes that moved the story forward. I also made changes based on my students' suggestions; they were so immersed in the lives of their characters that their suggestions were excellent. Each rehearsal seemed to be a gift of creativity. I was also still incredibly nervous. I rode a roller coaster of self-judgement, self-confidence, self doubt. Sometimes I would worry that the play was poorly written, too preachy, hard to understand, or too heavy handed. I felt guilty for asking an audience to attend something they would not like; but then a student would make an unexpected character choice onstage or discover a new objective that would lift me out of my fear, inspiring me with renewed energy.
We "opened," on November 6th, and the students rode a wave of love and support from our parent body, faculty members, administration, and friends. The best outcome occurred; a discussion began about health care (or lack thereof), advocacy, public policy, and erasing the stigma of mental illness. Audience members came forth with stories from their own lives about family members who have suffered, and alumni spoke to me about their struggles with mental illness. A beautiful, honest, and vulnerable dialogue continues. This is what I learned: everyone has a connection to the issue of mental illness. Until now, we've always kept it quiet. We can talk about physical disorders openly; heart disease, hip replacements, sports injuries. But talking about mental disorders is very personal, and by doing so we leave ourselves open to negative judgement. However, keeping secrets about our state of mind can exacerbate the problems, triggering even more shame, self-hate, and isolation. Talking about mental illness, through theatre, is a life-affirming exercise that can help lead to mental health. For some, the experience can be life changing.
I feel so compelled to share this experience with other drama teachers because I believe there is a great need in every community to engage in dialogue regarding mental illness.
Also, I highly encourage drama teachers who might have had the impulse to write for their students to absolutely do it. I am passionate about directing, and of course, there is a wealth of extraordinary, wondrous, delicious dramatic literature to embrace. But who knows your community, audience, administration, students, theater space, budget, and resources better than you? No one. When you write a play to direct at your school, you are creating a world tailor made for your community's needs and strengths. If you have an idea, write it for your students. What a great way to spend the summer. I look forward to trying it again, and I think about high school drama teachers beginning to share their plays with each other; so I can bring a story created by a teacher in Louisiana, Wyoming, or Missouri to my students in Los Angeles. What an exciting way to engage!
If you have written and directed a play for your students, I would love to read it and hear about your experience. Or if you have any more questions about my experience, please contact me.