OUROBOROS: A Playwright’s Journey Writing About Madness

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In the movie The Matrix the character Orpheus, played by Lawrence Fishburne, offers a choice of two pills to the character Neo, played by Keanu Reeves. One pill will let him wake up the next morning in the world that he knows as real. The other pill will take him on a journey to see just how deep the ‘rabbit hole’ goes. In the summer of 2009 I took a pill in the form of an open invitation to write and submit a short play, 15 to 20 minutes in length, for a local short play festival in Garrison, NY. The invitation came to me three weeks before the entry deadline. Perhaps it was the challenge of the time line, or that I was in a festive mid-summer mood, but I decided to take the plunge into the land of play writing, having only written a few poems and even fewer short stories over the years. Little did I realize that unsuspecting venture into play writing would be a door igniting an additional avenue of expression in theatre that I had already been involved with for nearly forty years as an actor and more recently director. That first piece of writing, 20 minutes in length, also was a catalyst for a six year journey. During that time I have written 7 One Act plays, (several winning awards and being mounted in various venues), 7 ten minute plays, and 3 full length plays, one titled STRANGERS, was presented in NYC by ‘Variations Theatre Company’ after winning their previous One Act festival with another play, and another full length play, HOMECOMING, was a winner in the prestigious 2014 Ashland New Play Festival in Oregon. During the writing and completion of these other plays I was bitten by the theme of perceived mental illness, more specifically psychosis, central to that original 20 minute first play. It kept calling me, like a siren song, into the fascinating, confusing, vulnerable, horrifying, humorous, mysterious, chaotic, judged, misunderstood, glamorized, feared, and undeniably visceral world of madness. Equally partnered with this theme was another equally mysterious, fascinating, misunderstood, glamorized, and sometimes feared experience that is most simply categorized as spiritual awakening.

It was these two themes, like two hands attempting to clasp, that wanted to be explored and written about. Sometimes people will ask me “how did you come up with the idea for what you’ve written”? For me that’s not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes I’ll hear something in a conversation that sparks an idea, or read a news item that gets me thinking in a certain direction. But often enough an idea seems to enter my conscious mind from a deeper territory not easily understood. I have for many years been interested in spiritual aspects of human nature, not just as represented by main stream religion, but also in terms of phenomena not easily understood, explained, or accepted by mainstream rational thought. And of course madness is one of those taboo subjects our culture has shunned, not just because it has a history of being considered shameful, but more to the point because we’re terrified of it. I remember as a teenager and watching an occasional television interview program, like the Mike Douglas show, and when a guest was on speaking about their ‘mental illness’ issue, how fascinated I was. There was also a period of time in my mid 30’s that I was privately concerned that I might be headed in the direction of falling into the deep end of the mental pool, so to speak. So the trajectory of this six year play writing journey, weaving its thread through active and dormant periods, has allowed these themes to somehow meet and share their story, hopefully, in a way that touches and inspires the heart as well as the mind.

The process of bringing that story to completion has involved a few years of research, easily twenty books, some clinical, some biographies, some autobiographies, articles, journals, radio archives, occasional correspondence with therapists that work with psychosis, and in one instance a therapist who had gone through their own personal psychotic process for a year and a half at the age of nineteen, a few workshops, learning about an escalating concern over the physical ramifications of long term neuroleptic medications and the profit aspects of this particular type of medication for the pharmaceutical industry, becoming aware of a rising ‘mad pride’ consciousness spearheaded in certain ways by the ‘Hearing Voices’ network that is just now beginning to make its voice known in the US but has been active in the UK for close to twenty years and is active in several other countries, as well as the subtle, haunting voices of the characters themselves, rising from somewhere, attempting to have their say in the matter.

Writing a play is such an odd venture. I think one almost needs to be partially unhinged to do so. Not just because it’s challenging to tell a story strictly through dialogue and action that takes place on the stage, but also because for it to really live a play needs to be enacted on the stage. That’s its purpose. And in the present reality of theatre land it is not a common occurrence for a new play to have that opportunity. Even the opportunity to present a staged reading of a play is welcome succor to playwrights, who too often spend months and sometimes years on a project that will never see the light of presentation, but instead sit in a dusty corner, unread, in a pile of manuscripts among many such piles across the country. So I am aware and grateful for the opportunity presented to me through the welcoming support of Elmwood Playhouse. I am also grateful for the array of skilled talent of the actors who will be bringing this reading to life, as well as the production staff bringing their skills in lighting design, sound, and visuals. Many staged readings are actors simply standing behind music stands with script, full general lighting on the stage, and rarely even sound. This staged reading will be with blocked movement, quite a bit of sound and light cues, and punctuated in certain areas with visual projections. A more detailed synopsis of the play follows this article.

A wine and cheese social gathering will precede the reading at 1:30 with the presentation starting at 2 PM. There is one intermission. Audience is invited to remain after the reading for a talk back with playwright and actors. You, as the reader of this article, are invited to attend and in so doing support new plays and Elmwood’s ongoing commitment to offer quality entertainment to the community. You might consider bringing a friend or relative. And we appreciate your sharing this event on your face book page.

Reserving your seats is strongly recommended via Elmwood’s website or calling our box office at 845 353-1313

Cast: John Ade, Stacey Cretekos, Bret Fox, Kit Lukas, Meg Sewell
Stage Directions: Erin deWard
Sound and Projections: Larry Wilbur
Lighting: Mike Gnazzo
Stage Manager: Allison Schneider
Written and Directed by: Michael Edan

Thomas, a Jungian therapist, emerges from a sea of mist and illuminates the symbolism of the Ouroboros [snake eating its tail] as well as a memory that initiated him into the potency of the unconscious. He is visited by Evelyn, who wants him to see her son, Jess, who has been diagnosed with possible schizophrenia. She believes the voices her son hears are from God. Thus begins a journey into mysteries of the human condition via the vulnerable and chaotic world of psychosis impacted by an engagement with spiritual forces. Meetings with Jess reveal someone who is disturbed and extremely sensitive, but also displays psychic capacities. Thomas discovers that Evelyn’s father was a coal miner turned preacher who established a church in West Virginia where the parishioners handled rattlesnakes and where a miraculous event took place with her son. After a dramatic occurrence during a session with Jess and Evelyn, [which ends Act I] the road toward
hopeful recovery is blocked by various detours. Jess displays radical variations of behavior. Thomas has disputes with his mentor, Robert, whose view of all psychosis being a brain abnormality clashes with his own belief that mythic themes can display their relevance in psychosis. Evelyn, upon further questioning, reveals her own troubled past with a violent husband, and Jess recalls a traumatic memory that propels him to visit Serpent Mound in Ohio, where an initiation awaits him. Ouroboros navigates through the Dionysian territory of madness to reveal psychosis as one possible path of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ by delving into the abjured caves of the damaged to discover what may exist as buried treasure.

Reality is larger than the box of our conditioning. In the search for personal truth we are eventually led back to the heart: its depth and mystery. An important aspect of this story’s intent is to emphasize our obligation to defend the right and support the courage to discover the treasure in each human being. The impact of such discovery can bring healing to both individual lives as well as society.

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