By Trudelle Thomas
We don’t usually think of a cabaret in connection with mental illness, but that’s just the venue chosen by Cathy Springfield and Sherry McCamley for their 2015 production, “She’s Crazy,” recently performed at the annual Cincinnati Fringe Theatre Festival. "Fringe Festivals" are city-wide theatre festivals in which innovative playwrights and theatre companies all showcase their newest works. Such festivals occur throughout the U.S. and beyond. The production features nine original songs interspersed with wit and story-sharing between the two seasoned performers. It is by turns funny, emotional and insightful.
The two performers credit NAMI’s Peer-to-Peer program for inspiration. The one-hour cabaret is meant to enlighten people regarding mental illness, especially mood disorders. They aim to reduce the stigma and misinformation surrounding mental illness. “We want to normalize the conversation—to get people talking about their own issues,” explains Springfield.
McCamley and Springfield perform on a simple set: two chairs, a screen, a planter and a keyboard. The planter sprouts stems with orange prescription bottles at their ends instead of flowers. In the background, the screen displays a series of slides, including: family snapshots, quotations, cartoons and also artwork by various artists who have lived with mental illness. McCamley plays keyboard and sings solo in a rich alto.
The heart of the show is the music. One memorable song, “Damage Done,” laments the pain of living with a parent with mental illness throughout childhood. Another song, “I Almost Wish He Would,” expresses the mixed emotions caused by a family member who lives with depression who keeps threatening suicide. More lighthearted songs balance the somber ones out. For example, “Easily Distracted” is a humorous take on the racing thoughts that often accompany mania or ADHD. In “My Favorite Things,” a list of common names of medications to treat mental illness is set to the familiar melody and gets the audience laughing.
Then there are the personal stories. Both Springfield and McCamley speak candidly about their own struggles with bipolar disorder and clinical depression and how a family history of mental illness makes it tougher to recognize symptoms. They also share how substance abuse can mask an illness. Springfield tells the audience that at least half of those with mental illness self-medicate with alcohol or other addictions. She speaks, too, of “angels” who helped set her on the road to recovery, highlighting the role of faith and spirituality in her own recovery journey.
As the performance progressed, I noticed many nods and tears among audience members, as well as robust laughter. The performers strike just the right balance of respect for a serious subject and humor, which lightens the mood. Their personal authority and compassion shine through. Afterward audience members commented, “It was very emotional, but also upbeat,” and “This show may have just saved my life.”
Personally, I loved the warmth and candor. Even though I’m a long-time NAMI supporter, well acquainted with the issues surrounding mental illness, I gained insights, especially about the impact of alcohol abuse on illness and the tough family dynamics that may be part of a person’s experience. It’s hard to imagine anyone not gaining courage and hope from this production.
Seeing talented and creative performers on stage gives acceptance to the fact that people with mental illness can still live highly productive lives. McCamley and Springfield have taught drama at the high school and college levels during long careers in theatre. Their work with students has given them a particular interest in taking “She’s Crazy” to high schools and colleges. “We try to come across as warm and inviting. We want students to see us as ‘moms’ who they can talk to.”
Though the two have worked together many times, this is their first production focusing on mental illness, and was funded by a Cincinnati Arts Ambassador Fellowship. Springfield and McCamley founded Feisty Broads Productions in 2011 to bring alternative theatre to Cincinnati.
The cabaret would also be a natural fit for NAMI conference or other event at any level. They are willing to perform for sponsors who cover travel expenses theycan be reached at [email protected].
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