From Stigma to Spotlight

by Adrienne Gurman
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SD's newest contributing writer Adrienne Gurman takes a look at This Is My Brave: The Show, which gives voice to those living with mental illness through theatrical expression.

As theatergoers take their seats for This Is My Brave: The Show, it is unlikely they’re prepared for the emotionally-charged performances they are about to witness. For the next two hours, real people, not actors, appear on stage and present a mix of poetry, music and essay, to tell heroic tales of living with a mental illness. This Is My Brave, Inc. is a non-profit organization whose mission is to end the stigma of mental illness through live theater. Every story places an emphasis on living a full life despite psychological disorders. Through sharing stories of pain and recovery, each show provides a sense of community and hope and encourages others to share their own personal narrative. 

“Each time one of us shares our story,” says co-founder Jennifer Marshall, “there’s another crack helping to break down the stigma. There’s strength found in people coming together to propel a movement forward. That’s why we created our organization.”

Co-founder Jennifer MarshallMarshall and her friend, Anne Marie Ames, co-founded This Is My Brave, Inc. in 2013. No stranger to the stigma of mental illness, Marshall was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005 at the age of 26. After receiving the alarming news, she felt ashamed. Her embarrassment surrounding her illness lasted for five isolating years. 

“Stigma causes us to internalize our struggles,” says Marshall, who lived with the fear of being treated differently, of being discriminated against, and that her friends would scatter. She hid her illness and often told little lies, like saying she’d been to the dentist when in actuality she was at a therapy appointment. 

“Everyone knows someone with mental illness,” Marshall notes, “whether they know it or not.” She feels that by sharing stories on a stage while surrounded by friends and family, the message of hope is conveyed by those in recovery.”

The performers look like everyday people—neighbors, teachers, or the salesperson in a local shop. As soon as the show begins, the audience realizes that mental illness can happen to anyone. Marshall is proud of the work, “It’s an honor to watch the storytellers transform. Putting names and faces on stories can lead to ending the long-standing stigma surrounding mental illness.”

For someone whose only background in theater was that one time she was in a play as a kid, Marshall has come a long way. This Is My Brave has produced shows in theaters across the country, including the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center and in New York City at the Kaye Theater at Hunter College.

“It’s critical that the storytellers are in recovery and ready to speak publicly.” Marshall stresses that is the job of the producers. “We give them guidance in our playbook on how to recognize that someone is in a good place.” A number of therapists have been involved with leading the production. Marshall notes, “It’s a great background to guide the show. After reviewing online auditions, the producers select a cast of 12 to 14 people for each show and immediately begin rehearsing—often up to 10 times to make sure the performers are truly ready to go on stage.” The rehearsals serve as a way to bring people together. “They get to know each other and become little families,” explains Marshall. “They feel a strong sense of community, like, ‘Yeah, this is my tribe.’ These are difficult topics filled with personal details of past struggles. We want them to speak from their scars. A great deal of our storytellers have been very nervous before a show, but 99 percent of the time the cast comes off that stage asking, ‘When can I do it again?’”

The focus is always on recovery and the main goal is for audience members to walk away with a sense of hope. The proven success of the organization reinforces that the participants want this kind of platform. They want the opportunity to say, ‘I live with bipolar, I’ve been in the hospital four times for mania, but I am living a great life and you can get through this, too.’ 

“Brave multiplies brave,” Marshall likes to say. “We came up with the name This Is My Brave because it reflects how someone feels when he or she is talking about mental illness. They must be brave because in our society, it’s not accepted everywhere. I’ve learned an incredible amount about the human experience and what people go through.” Word of their shows is spreading via publications like O, the Oprah Magazine and the Washington Post and on social media. 

Marshall has seen the demand for involvement keep on building and they have devised a protocol for new participants. In 2015, This Is My Brave was trademarked to protect the hard work that went into the concepts and branding. “We license our brand out to them [the producers],” explains Marshall. “Before each new show, producers sign an agreement stating that they will work along with us and that all the funds raised from these individually produced shows comes back to This Is My Brave. Any nonprofit—a theater, mental health organization, or school, can come to us and pay the licensing fee. This policy helps us keep going, build staff and have the things we need to grow. Groups can also produce shows through other nonprofit organizations. In Valparaiso, IN, the Northwest Indiana Excellence in Theater Foundation has produced shows for two years in a row. We’ve given it the nickname, ‘Chicagoland Show’ due to its proximity to Chicago.”

Each group is assigned a mentor/producer who has worked on a show in the past. This serves as a guide through the process, even though every show has its own individual feel. Traditionally each stage is lit with dim house lighting and a spotlight on the speaker, allowing for real focus in on that person. Historically all the speakers are up on stage during the show because it really gives the person who’s at the microphone a sense of support. They’ve got their team behind them. 

Some performances have had storytellers literally re-enact real-life situations. In the Chicago show a few years ago, one girl talked about her depression and her anxiety. She had her mom and dad join her on stage dressed up as depression and anxiety. Another team, a guy and a girl who were dating at the time, in the Iowa City show re-enacted their first date because they both had mental health issues and didn’t know how to tell the other person. Marshall says, “It was kind of like what was going through their heads and stuff. Now they’re getting married!”

In a powerful display of both persistence and determination at the Napa Valley show this year, there was a young man who had suffered a stroke when he was younger and went on to face various mental health issues. Ever since the stroke he has had very shaky hands and struggled with how he would present his piece. The producer sat with him, recorded his voice and then edited it down to six minutes. When it was his turn, he emerged holding his shoes with laces that needed to be tied. He sat down in a chair—strategically placed in the center of the stage—and tied his shoes while his story played in the background. 

With each production, This Is My Brave tries to partner with local mental health groups, such as NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness], since they’re the ones providing critical services within the communities. They ask the groups for assistance in spreading the word for auditions and selling tickets to the performances, and in return the groups get a table at the show to bring awareness to the hundreds of attendees. 

Through This Is My Brave, Marshall has seen many of the cast members transform before her eyes over the last couple of years. She describes the change, “When you tell your story like that on a stage, in front of a couple hundred people, it’s like a weight off your shoulders.”

Marshall encourages anyone, whether they’re in the theater community or otherwise, who has an interest in producing a This Is My Brave show next year, to contact her via the organization’s website. It’s her dream that “One day we will live in a world where we won’t have to call it ‘brave’ when talking about mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”  

Scroll through the gallery below to see casts from some of This Is My Brave shows:

25,15,0,50,2
1,600,60,0,5000,1000,25,2000
100,100,0,50,12,25,50,2,70,12,2,50,2,0,0,5000
0,0,0,0,0,16,0,0,4,0,1,0,0,1
This Is My Brave 4
This Is My Brave 4
This Is My Brave 3
This Is My Brave 3
This Is My Brave 2
This Is My Brave 2
This IS My Brave 1
This IS My Brave 1

[Ed Note: As we went to print, sadly Anne Marie Ames passed away suddenly on August 23. This is My Brave, Inc. stated: "It is with heavy hearts we learned of the unexpected, sudden passing of our beloved co-founder, Anne Marie Marklin Ames. She touched countless lives with her passion for our mission, and she will be deeply missed.]

Learn more about attending, producing, participating, or supporting at thisismybrave.org