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The Manic Monologues: A space for mental health conversations in times of distress

<h6>Courtesy of <a href="https://www.mccarter.org/manicmonologues" target="">McCarter Theatre Center</a></h6>

Last month, McCarter Theater premiered “The Manic Monologues,” a digital theatrical experience that aiming to disrupt stigma around mental illness.

Created by Zack Burton, a Stanford geology Ph.D. student, and Elisa Hofmeister, a medical student at the University of Minnesota, show initially premiered at Stanford in 2019. Afterward, it was also staged at the University of California, Los Angeles and by an independent company from Des Moines, Iowa before it was taken up by McCarter.

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The play — an interactive an interactive website featuring vignettes of people who have experienced mental illness in their lives — was staged in collaboration with TigerWell, Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), and One Mind All Media, a non-profit organization dedicated to funding mental health research and mental health advocacy headed by Dalton Delan ’76.

The series of vignettes comprising the play each focus on a different aspect or kind of mental illness. In all vignettes, a single actor narrates a real-life story of struggle with mental illness. In the original production, the stories were collected from Facebook advocacy groups as well as from organizations in Stanford. For Princeton’s production, four submissions from University students, faculty, and staff were also included. 

Tessa Albertson ’20 was among the actresses involved in the project. She portrayed a woman named Victoria who sought a cure for her clinical depression in meditation and wanted “to transcend this crap we call ‘life.’” After three days of meditation, Victoria has what she characterizes as a moment of bliss. She experiences her own non-existence: for her, “‘I’ doesn’t exist.” After this brief experience, she has an attack of psychosis and is hospitalized. 

In normal times, Albertson’s monologue would be one of 20 others, all of which would be physically staged. However, COVID-19 radically altered the nature of the play. Instead of a one-night, in-person production, the play evolved into a full-scale online project. The actors were given equipment to film themselves, and a website was designed to present their videos to a new virtual public.

Albertson and Bi Jean Ngo, who plays a person with schizophrenia, both emphasized the novelty and difficulty of this new format. The actors had to arrange their own lighting and film themselves, which presented unprecedented challenges. 

“At this time, as an actor, you have to become a hybrid artist,” Ngo said. “It’s the new way we have to do theater now.” 

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Yet the changes brought by the pandemic were not without upsides. Theater professor Elena Araoz, the director of the play, said that one of the benefits of the new online format is that the play can now reach a larger audience. As she put it, “More people can now see it than can actually fit into McCarter.” 

Another advantage of the online format is that the visitors can now interact with the webpage and choose the videos they want to watch as well as learn about mental health through the resource section. In addition to the wealth of resources provided by CPS, the webpage also features a notebook that visitors can doodle on. The randomized nature of the experience means that no two visits are ever the same, and the music that plays changes depending on the order that the visitors interact with the videos and other materials.

Nearly everyone involved in the project expressed their hope that through this play and other initiatives like it, the stigma surrounding mental illness could finally be defeated. Co-creator Zack Burton emphasized the importance of “carrying the conversation [about mental health] forward” and indicated that “the core intent is to reduce and eventually erase stigma surrounding mental health conditions.”

Professor Araoz echoed this idea and added that “If somehow we can help people talk about mental health more freely, then maybe our communities would be healthier.” 

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Building such a community, unfortunately, will take a long time. However, “The Manic Monologues” will be available on a dedicated website for the next five years, gesturing towards a better future and reminding us that a more caring society is possible. 

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