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What Can Theatre Can Tell Us About Mental Health & Humanity Today?

“Welcome to the greatest adventure of your life!”
That’s how I began my second TEDx Talk this year. And it’s basically a talk about healing from trauma through story. Many stories, but really, just one.

Think about some of the greatest stories you’ve heard – maybe it’s a Star Wars movie, perhaps a Harry Potter book, or a chapter in the latest Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology. Think about the patterns you observe around you every day. And think about how those patterns we experience, and the stories we hear guide us every day – whether we know it or not.
Rick Dildine, artistic and executive director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, who will soon join Alabama Shakespeare Festival as Artistic Director, shared the power he finds in storytelling through theatre.
“I make theatre to ask, ‘What is my purpose here? Why am I in this world? It’s an opportunity to get closer to that truth.’”
So what are some of the first questions he asks when approaching a play?
“What is the truth of this story? What do I know about this from my own experience? What is universal?”
It’s that universal story that theatre tells so well – a story of the hero’s journey – and a story that saved my own life.
In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell describes the archetypal hero’s journey as an adventure we all undertake in our lifetime.
In Campbell’s words:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
My second TEDx Talk was all about heroes, stories and the two best places to find them: in theatre, and in ourselves.
Storytelling, since the beginning of time, has driven change, created movements, and empowered those who never knew they had a story to tell. As an artist, creating stories is my way to uncover the certainty and significance from chaos and unsteadiness. After surviving a decade of trauma, I discovered this storytelling “survival strategy” as a lifeline, roadmap and anchor to myself. To cope with 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I locked myself in my room and journaled thousands of pages, using Joseph Campbell’s archetypal hero’s journey to create a structure for my life that had lost all structure entirely. Not only did stories help my own personal transformation, they helped me reintegrate into society once I myself had transformed.
And the power of one story – one universal narrative is not only what guided me through trauma, but what is producing theatre that is changing lives from coast to coast…and beyond.
Christopher Ashley, artistic director at La Jolla Playhouse, and director of Broadway’s Come From Away, discovered how a story all the way in Newfoundland could resonate with New Yorkers.
How did he first get attracted to this story?
“I was in New York during 9/11 and had all of these strong, unresolved feelings at that time, and my associate director at La Jolla came to my office and said, ‘There’s a script you have to read, and I think it’s really gonna matter to you.’ There was something immediate about the script that struck me – something about that moment of kindness and generosity that felt like a necessary story to tell at this exact moment. We are living in a moment of such division and friction between people.
The stories of Newfoundland of that week, where people were so stranded, and how thoroughly people took care of them. There were different religions, backgrounds, and nothing else mattered, except that this person was hungry, and this person needed protection. There was generosity, compassion, it felt very much about community, and very much like how New Yorkers took care of each other at that time. The “New York” edge was off, and it was about humanity.”
Dildine finds the humanity of a story through family. “I’ve always loved intimate family dramas. What does it mean to be a human? A true moment of humanity for me, is where the prince has to sit through his father’s death in Henry the Fourth. To have a loved one pass on in our lives…that is something we all will inevitably experience.”
Humanity – for me, that is what theatre is about – finding the essence of humanity. THAT’s how we fight stigma – by showing how very much we ALL have in common!

To be continued….

“Those who suffer from mental illness are stronger than you think. We must fight to go work, care for our families, be there for our friends, and act ‘normal’ while battling unimaginable pain.”

“It’s so common, it could be anyone. The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it. And that makes everything worse.”

See my TEDx Talks at www.amyoes.com/tedx and tell me what YOU think!

One Reply to “What Can Theatre Can Tell Us About Mental Health & Humanity Today?”

  1. VRuiz says:

    I love how you have found this connection between theatre and humanity/mental health.. Almost every play or movie I have watched has touched on some important piece of the human experience.. there is literally something for everyone since creators and writers have used their experiences (& the experiences of people around them) to develop things that are so relatable. We get to see our truth on “stage” all the time.

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