Sunday, February 4, 2018

A topic often ignored given 'brilliant' life at Tipping Point

Katherine Banks

When it comes to the hot-button topic of health care, there's one component that seems to be shoved into the back of the closet more often than not - which is a shame, since it directly and indirectly impacts a significant number of people. Did you know that nearly one in five Americans experience some form of mental illness each and every year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness? (That's approximately 18.5% of us, folks!) What's more, approximately one in five young people between the ages of 13 and 18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life; the number is 13% for ages 8–15.

Yes, talking about mental health issues can be uncomfortable, thanks to a combination of societal stigma, misinformation and an overall lack of accurate subject-matter knowledge. Yet it's a conversation we need to have if lives are to be improved and saved. (Also from the above-mentioned source: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the third leading cause of death for people ages 10–14 and the second leading cause of death for people ages 15–24. So, yes, this is an important conversation we must have!)

The magic of live theater can be an important voice in that discussion. And that's what's currently happening inside Northville's Tipping Point Theatre through Feb. 25.

Teamed with experts from St. Mary Mercy Livonia's Behavioral Health Department, Tipping Point's production of Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe explores the topic of depression and its long-term ramifications on a child whose mother suffers from the illness. The story begins with a seven-year-old who copes with the situation by creating a list of things that make life worth living (such as ice cream), a list that grows and expands for years and decades to come. Originally created as a tool to help heal the mother, the list actually serves to help anchor the child as life takes it unexpected twists and turns, ups and downs.

There you have it: the story's basic plot in a hundred words or less. So why, then, is live theater a better way to bring it to life than, say, a short story (which, under the title Sleeve Notes, is how the project actually started)?

Unlike the passive, solo experience of reading, live theater utilizes sight, sound and multiple art forms to create a shared universe that stimulates our minds and imaginations in both personal and communal ways unlike anything else. (What do I mean by that? Although the audience receives the same visual and audial stimuli and may laugh or cry together at certain points along their shared journey, afterward ask each person what they're taking away from the show and you'll get a surprisingly broad diversity of responses.)

And, when presented with great care, sensitivity and creativity, the result can be a powerful and emotional learning experience that will long be remembered by most in attendance. (It sure beats a lecture!)

Director Angie Kane Ferrante delivers all that and more. The basics are built into the script: no set, basic lighting, audience in the round, music in the background, one actor, some audience participation. It's what Ferrante contributes from that point on that's significant.

With subject matter that's more likely to create an invisible wall between performer and audience (and fear, since many theatergoers hate the idea they might be called on during the show), a safe space must be created in order for the audience to feel comfortable and responsive. As such, the first order of business for Ferrante was to cast someone whose personality would help create such an environment the instant the audience meets the performer. And that must be an immediate response, since the actor is in the theater from the moment the doors open, greeting folks as they enter and soliciting their help when needed during the show. (What are they asked to do? Shout out specified items from the child's list when prompted to do so, which were provided on numbered sheets of paper. I didn't count, but I'd guesstimate a couple dozen audience members participated.)

But that's not all. Additional theatergoers are drafted throughout the performance to play whatever additional characters are required to move the story along. So one person becomes a spouse, another a father, while someone else assumes the role of a sock-puppet-using school counselor. And therein lies potential danger.

Part of the fun of live theater is knowing that anything can happen at any moment - especially the unexpected. So when a script calls for unrehearsed theatergoers to play important parts of the story with little or no guidance, a director better have an actor in the show who is prepared to deal with wannabe stars who try to steal the show, or someone who panics and freezes like deer in headlights.

Therefore, it becomes imperative for the actor in the show to have at least some improv training or experience to help in such situations. So local improv guru Dave Davies - a longtime Tipping Point favorite - entered the mix, working with the actors to polish their skills.

Wait. Did I say actors? Isn't this a one-person play?

I did indeed, and yes it is. That's what I love most about this production.

What prompted this decision I'm not sure, but it's a great one: Two actors have been cast in the show, one man (James R. Kuhl, Tipping Point's producing artistic director) and one woman (Katherine Banks), each of whom performs on a different night. What I find ingenious about the concept is that it reflects the reality that girls and boys (and men and women) often respond differently to identical stimuli. And, I suspect, we respond to them differently as well.

Since Kuhl opened the show and has been showered with love by the media as a result of his performance (see the links below), I attended this past Friday night to observe Banks in the role. To say she was brilliant would be an understatement.

Her ability to charm the audience was noticeable upon entering the theater. With a warm smile and an old-friends-like demeanor, she greeted audience members as they took their seats. She looked you straight in the eye, and with a sincere quality to her voice as if you were the most important person in the room, she'd ask if you'd like to be a part of the show. If there was hesitancy, she'd take another approach (which she had to do with me when I first declined; when I'm there to write about the show, I make it a point never to become part of the performance). When successful, she seemed excited and honest with her thanks; she was equally understanding and nice when rejected.

All of that work paid off the second she stepped up onto an all-purpose wooden cube and started the show. It was her movement and voice alone that grabbed our attention; the lights never dimmed or brightened. And from that point on, she had the audience in the palm of her hands.

As the unnamed woman, Banks tells us her story beginning at the age of seven, jumping back and forth between narrator and participant. She is a natural storyteller, addressing us directly and keeping her focus laser sharp at all times. Her delivery is calm, soothing and reassuring; you can't help but hang on to every word she says.

But where she especially shines is with her rapport with those she brings on stage to help tell her story.

With gentle and often humorous prodding, everyone she approached throughout the performance joined in. And quite surprisingly, each provided her with responses that likely surpassed Bank's most desired expectations.

The result, then, was a performance in which - for me - the character became the reality. This wasn't an actress telling me a story; this was the woman herself discussing what life was like with a mother who'd "done something stupid" multiple times, and how those actions impacted her emotionally for the rest of her life.

All technical elements serve the show well: Scenic and properties by Gabriella S. Csapo; Costumes by Katherine Nelson; lights by Rachael Nardecchia; and sound design by Sonja Marquis.

So, yes, this is a story speckled with sadness. Yet it's also filled with genuine, heart-warming laughs. Ultimately, though, Every Brilliant Thing is an uplifting and hope-filled tale brilliantly told that shows us the resiliency of the human spirit. And it's one that theatergoers won't soon forget.

The Bottom Line: A project this good and worthwhile should live on after its final performance as a way to jump start a much-needed discussion on mental health treatment in the 21st century. That's what great theater excels at!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Performance details can be found HERE.
Mental health statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness can be found HERE.

Read John Monaghan's review in the Detroit Free Press HERE.
Read Patrice Nolan's review on HERE.
Read Ronelle Grier's review in The Oakland Press HERE.
Read Daniel Skora's review on It's All Theatre HERE.

James R. Kuhl and Katherine Banks

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