Before she became founder and artistic director of the theater company Erasing the Distance, Brighid O'Shaughnessy honed her craft volunteering and working with Thresholds, largest and oldest provider of community behavioral healthcare and mental health services in Illinois.
With Thresholds, O'Shaughnessy worked in its theater arts program which helped individuals with mental illness to share and perform their own stories.
"The more comfortable I got about talking about mental health in my own community, the more I realized that friends, family members, people I met on the train were just pouring their hearts out to me regarding things that they were struggling withwhether it was depression or maybe the anxieties of a roommate or maybe a parent's bipolar disorder," O'Shaughnessy said. "Then I started to sense that were all of these stories hungering to be told and that there needed to be a forum outside of our little program in Thresholds so people could have a voice."
So in 2005, O'Shaughnessy created a not-for-profit arts organization that would eventually become Erasing the Distance to shed light on mental health issues through theater. The idea is that sharing stories through theater helps to combat stigma and educate people.
"I decided to use professional actors for a variety of reasons. One was that I knew actors could really embody the stories to the point so that audience could get swept in and be able to see themselves in the characters," Shaughnessy said. "And then I was really interested to see if we could erase that distance between audience members and storytellers so we could see that we're more similar than we are different."
Erasing the Distance's upcoming show Finding Peace in This House at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre in the Center on Halsted is a revival. It originally debuted in a one-night-only performance in June 2011 at the Chicago Cultural Center and grew as a collaboration with students from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology who collected stories from people struggling to find peace in their "house"be it a someone growing up in terror-filled home, a person feeling abandoned by his disabled body or how someone copes while locked up in a prison cell. Some of those stories were then selected to be transformed into theatrical monologues for the show.
One of the collected stories was from a transgender woman called Candice, but those creating the show were reluctant to include it. Not because it wasn't a great story, but they were nervous about including it in a show exploring mental illness.
"We really did not in any way shape or form want to send a message that being transgender was a mental illness, because clearly it isn't," O'Shaughnessy said. "We were afraid of giving that impression."
However, once the title was settled upon and the focus of the show was shifted so that it explored the processes that people go through to find serenity in self, the show's creators decided to put Candice's story back into the mix of six monologues.
"Candice's story is really about a woman who at a very young age, even at age 3 or 4, didn't have peace," O'Shaughnessy said. "She felt like she was at constant war with herself because she knew who she wanted to be but that didn't seem possible for many years in her life."
In creating the show, O'Shaughnessy said some of the original people interviewed actively got involved with the actors portraying them (like a slam-poet with cerebral palsy), while others chose to step away from the process and see how things turned out later. Either way, each original person interviewed got a copy of their script so they could see what was included.
At the previous performance of Finding Peace in This House, Candice was in attendance and participated in the talkback session.
"She actually talked to the audience about how it impacted her and how moved she was to see her own self reflected back to her," O'Shaughnessy said. "She was like, 'Wow, I've gone through this huge journey and I know it because I've lived it, but sometimes I forget about the depth of my own experience and then when I saw it reflected back it was like seeing it in a whole new light.'"
Erasing the Distance's production of Finding Peace in This House plays 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23-24 and Jan. 30-31 at The Center on Halsted's Hoover-Leppen Theatre, 3656 N. Halsted. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Visit www.brownpapertickets.com and type in the search term "Finding Peace" for tickets. For more information on the organization, visit www.ErasingTheDistance.org .
Diverse new series
The Raven Theater is introducing its new "Raven's Evermore Series" to highlight emerging and diverse artists in theater, music and dance. On the bill through spring are modern-dance works by the Joel Hall Dance Company (March 10 and April 14), jazz music from George Goetschel & Friends (March 18) and the return of James Anthony Zoccoli's popular memoir piece Wiggerlover [white boy+Black dad=gray areas] about growing up in an interracial family in 1979 (April 6-7 and April 13-14).
However, to launch Raven's Evermore Series is a one-woman show from out performer Kelli Strickland called We've Got a Badge for That. Originally premiered at the Filet of Solo festival, the piece is a coming of age story of one girl in the scouts dealing with puppy love, pyromania and peach schnapps.
Strickland's past work include starring in the feature film Hannah Free (playing young Hannah with Sharon Gless) and holding the former position of Executive Director of Bailiwick's Lesbian Theatre Initiative.
We've Got a Badge for That runs at 8 p.m. Jan. 13 and 14 at the Raven Theatre's East Stage, 6157 N. Clark. Tickets are $20 and $15 for students and seniors. For more information on the Raven Theatre's call 773-338-2177 or visit www.raventheatre.com .
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