Sunday, Jan. 18, 2009

The Dig and Mental Illness

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Mental illness in general and schizophrenia in particular are tricky things to capture onstage. Over the years I’ve talked to number of people with schizophrenia, both in my personal life and in activities involved in the pursuit of my BA in psychology. As a result, staged interpretations of schizophrenia rarely seem authentic to me. Everyone’s got some level of distance from what society laughingly refers to as “reality.” Those who are further away from what is generally accepted as “sanity,” have a certain otherworldly presence about them that can be very difficult for an actor to render onstage. I used to have a theory about this having to do with the approach an actor takes to portraying such a character. The “safe,” way to portray mental illness is for the actor to create a character to step into, using aspects of his or her own personality through which to interface with the pre-conceived character. The “vulnerable,” way to portray mental illness is to reach out to it by identifying with it and amplifying those aspects of the actor’s own personality that coincide with the mental illness. It’s the inside-out approach, rather than the outside-in. Rather than stepping into the character, the vulnerable approach is to have the actor let those aspects of the personality to walk into them. The more that I’ve had a chance to think about the theory the less significant it seems. Outside-in or inside-out--it’s all conceptual. I think the bottom line in effectively portraying mental illness lies in giving it the same kind of sympathetic portrayal that makes for a well-rounded performance of any kind. This is precisely what Brian Mani has done with his dignified portrayal of schizophrenic retired archaeologist Jamie in Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of The Dig.

The debut of the new play by resident playwright Marie Kohler has provided Renaissance Theaterworks the opportunity to work with the Grand Avenue Club—a community group that provides people who have suffered mental illness with opportunities to get ready for work, paid employment, education, housing and more. Throughout the run of the show, paintings and other works by club members adorn the lobby of the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre lobby. Many of the pieces on display provide a certain warmth to the lobby that feels refreshing.

Renaissance Theaterworks’ The Dig runs through February 8th. A full review of the show run in the January 22nd issue of the Shepherd-Express.

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