By Marli Bosler
This story contains references to suicidal ideation that may be troubling to some readers.
“This is scary as hell.”
A woman looks up at a lemon tree in her backyard, twisting free several fruits as a voiceover lets out a nervous laugh. “It’s not that I don’t have anything to say,” she says, back to the camera, sunbathed lemons dangling overhead. “After 22 years of being officially mentally ill, I have plenty to tell.”
In this scene of serenity, of trimming and plucking and garden upkeep, this woman wonders aloud, “Do I talk about that?” From guilt to shame to gratitude and resilience, she captures the myriad of emotions that accompany sharing her experiences. She tells her story, and she is not alone.
“The Manic Monologues,” a play that first premiered on the Stanford stage in May 2019, found early success with its piercing, slice-of-life accounts of mental illness and the lives it touches. Due to the pandemic, the creators have reimagined the performances for an online platform, a virtual viewing experience that is free to all and went live on the McCarter Theatre Center’s website last Thursday.
The 21 monologues are not presented in the traditional, on-stage format. Instead, viewers are invited into a creative space reminiscent of a school classroom, complete with a teacher’s podium, a roll-out TV set and a desk littered with newspaper clippings. Hanging over the scene are 21 black silhouettes, each a snapshot of a story waiting in the wings. Once a figure is clicked, a wave of whispers emerges as all but the silhouettes fade away. One voice takes center stage as the screen goes dark.
Some about college-aged students, some about parents, some funny, some heart-wrenching, the performances capture an impressive diversity of people and experiences. Nothing about the presentations is monolithic; a woman smudges her eyeliner in the reflection of her TV, a middle-aged professor sculpts a clay bust, a mother makes an omelette in the kitchen. Sometimes it feels like the performer is telling their story directly to you, as if confiding in a close friend. Other times, it is as if the viewer takes a backseat inside the mind of someone reliving the highs and lows of their journey with mental illness.
One of the most memorable monologues for me, entitled “The window is a portal,” begins with a young man peering out his dorm window onto a quad of his college campus. A series of ornate windows fill the screen, images of grand staircases and stained-glass ceilings outlined with chalk-like sketches. As he begins to speak about his experiences with suicidal ideation, blueprints and calculus equations creep over the pictures, as if scrawled across a lecture hall blackboard. The familiar college imagery resonates with me.
As he shares these nuanced thoughts of ending his own life, he is still a college student with a curious and calculating mind. He is still human and multidimensional, more than any single emotion or thought. His experience is not twisted into a lesson or warning. It is raw and real. I felt like I knew this young man as a person, not just a vessel for his mental illness.
The focus of the Manic Monologues is to combat the stigmatized narrative surrounding mental illness, something their site regards as more fatal than the illness itself. In addition to the video monologues, the website attempts to engage viewers with several creative activities, such as doodling in colored pencil or writing a personal story on an etch-a-sketch. A corkboard littered with sticky notes offers extensive mental health resources for those seeking help, those looking to learn more and anyone who wants to help disrupt the stigma. Many of the people whose stories are shared in this performance are themselves involved with the mental health community, as counselors, authors and artists.
This performance compassionately provides a space for people to share their experiences with mental illness and allows the rest of us the opportunity to reflect, learn and engage in conversations that are long overdue.
“I’ve survived,” says the woman in the garden. “Maybe I should talk about that.”