February 17, 2021

McCarter and Princeton University Present “The Manic Monologues”; Interactive Website Offers Performances, Discussions About Mental Health

“THE MANIC MONOLOGUES”: McCarter Theatre Center, in association with Princeton University Health Services, The 24 Hour Plays, and Innovations in Socially Distant Performance, is launching “The Manic Monologues.” Created by Zack Burton (left) and Elisa Hofmeister (center), the monologues form the core of a virtual experience conceived and directed by Elena Araoz (right). (Photos courtesy of the artists)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre will launch The Manic Monologues on February 18. The free interactive website is described by a press release as “a digital theatrical experience to disrupt stigma and spotlight a conversation about mental health.” McCarter is presenting the project in association with Princeton University Health Services; The 24 Hour Plays; and Innovations in Socially Distant Performance, a project of Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts.

The monologues, and the panel discussions that complement them, concern “our moment,” says McCarter’s Resident Producer Debbie Bisno. Topics include the extent to which mental health is affected by social media, racial injustice, and COVID.

The Manic Monologues was created by Zack Burton and Elisa Hofmeister. It is a collection of true stories submitted by a range of people living with mental health challenges. The anthology of vignettes was inspired by Burton’s personal experience; in 2017 he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (At the time he was completing his Ph.D. in geology at Stanford). Burton says that the play was conceived “about a year after my diagnosis.”

Burton and Hofmeister, who were dating at the time, aimed to improve the conversation about mental health. “We were struggling with this lack of hopeful, uplifting stories,” Burton explains. “Every one of us knows someone touched in some way by a mental health condition … this is a core component of the human experience. It’s a spectrum, and it’s also equal opportunity, so everyone’s affected. So we wanted to capture that diversity.”

For material, “We didn’t do interviews; we had people submit stories,” Burton says. Advocacy groups on Facebook were fruitful: “We probably had about 50 stories come in within a few weeks.” The creators wanted a sequence of pieces that were “reflective, then a bit funny, then tragic, then uplifting.” Burton acknowledges editorial help from Tom Shroder, a former editor at The Washington Post Magazine.

The Manic Monologues premiered at Stanford in May 2019, directed by Hofmeister. Subsequent productions took place at Open Door Rep, in Des Moines; and at UCLA. Some of the monologues were filmed for AdventHealth’s Conference on Mission.

Online Experience

Bisno recalls that when Daniela Bonafede-Chhabra (a member of the theater’s board of trustees) brought The Manic Monologues to her attention in 2019, she was fascinated by the project, and drawn to the subject matter. “I thought this would be a perfect project for our lab [The Emily Mann LAB for the Development of New Work],” she says. “We use theater and art as a vehicle for a greater civic dialogue.”

Dr. Calvin Chin, Princeton University’s director of counseling and psychological services, remembers that Bisno contacted him “to talk about ways that we could collaborate. We started initial conversations, but then the pandemic hit … we obviously couldn’t do a live show anymore.”

Bisno adds, “We were looking at all of our projects, asking ‘What can we save?’” Theaters, including McCarter, started producing online content to mitigate the absence of live productions. Bisno saw The Manic Monologues as a “project that we could easily pivot to a virtual platform.” Chin praises Bisno’s “creativity in figuring out a way to offer the same program through a virtual space.”

“What was going to be a one-night event … seen by a maximum of a thousand people, could now be seen by the world,” Bisno remarks. “We should never be complacent in how we create art — because that must change in order to stay relevant.”

The project is funded in part by a grant from the TigerWell Initiative at Princeton University. “We’re funded generously by the Elcan Family Fund,” says TigerWell’s project manager, Anne Laurita, Ph.D. “Our general goal is to engage student, staff, and faculty partners in working together to cultivate a campus community that supports student well-being.”

“One of the ways that we add to that engagement is through our grants program,” Laurita continues. “I was involved in bringing the application to a selection committee … and then consulting with Calvin and Debbie, to think about how to sustain impact of the project.” Bisno appreciates that the University was “not only supportive financially, but also in terms of deepening the experience, helping us to curate the resources and panels.” Resources include hotlines and links to services.

Elena Araoz, a faculty member at Princeton (where she leads the research project Innovations in Socially Distant Performance), was hired to direct. Although prerecorded videos of performances are a central component of the project, Bisno and Araoz were determined to move beyond the usual livestream.

Araoz explains that she sought a way to replicate a live theatrical experience “where the audience gets to see that their interaction affects the experience coming back at them.” Bisno elaborates that they wanted the audience to be able to engage with the monologues “at their own pace, in a way that wasn’t heavy and maudlin, but was actually creative — and even fun, and that would allow for a sense of play.” She adds, “You can doodle and listen to music on the site, [and] you can read the script.”

Web development is by Jackie Liu; and Jared Mezzocchi is the multimedia designer. Nathan Leigh is the composer and sound designer.

Can a website constitute theater? Araoz argues that it can. “Theater is basically two things: sharing community and space; and sharing a live interaction.” She asserts that the site’s content offers “a sense of a whole community of people who are actively working to advocate for more conversation and research for mental health.”

She adds that the coding allows for “feedback. You click or hover over something, and … it all moves, and the sound changes, based upon your interaction.”

Araoz sought to emphasize that the monologues form “a visual story as much as a verbal story.” She was interested in the characters’ daily lives: “What kinds of things are in their place? What do they have to do to go to work? What do they do for joy? What do they do for resilience?”

The director points to a character (portrayed by Anna Belknap) whose mental illness leads her “to try to commit suicide multiple times.” In one of her two monologues the character is “outside, collecting herbs she’ll use to help make food. You get the sense of resilience and life through it.”

Craig Bierko plays a character “who does not have a mental illness, but his father did,” Araoz says. “Craig is an astounding visual artist, so his character is sculpting his father’s figure. It’s beautiful, heart-wrenching, and so full of love.”

Chin moderates a panel discussion on “Mental Health and COVID.” He also interviews Jean Twenge, author of iGen. Chin hopes that viewers will “see beyond stereotypes about who is mentally ill,” and “acknowledge their own vulnerability. They may feel less shame in seeking out resources.” He adds, “That’s my hope — that the Manic Monologues experience will start a conversation that will help reduce the barriers to accessing care.”

Burton wants The Manic Monologues to be “made available to communities across the world. There’s so much power, in narrative, to help people better empathize, connect with, and humanize these experiences of mental health.” He wants to continue to explore ways of using “artistic media to help people better connect.”

The interactive website for “The Manic Monologues” goes live on Thursday, February 18 at 7 a.m. It can be seen at mccarter.org/manicmonologues. For additional information, or to contact the creators about permission to perform the monologues, visit themanicmonologues.org.