Nonprofit examines mental illness through theater

Eileen Vorbach (Left) and Jennifer Matthews (Right) are both cast members in Erasing the Distance’s new production, which discusses how depression affects families.

The impact of mental illness on a family will give audiences food for thought as Erasing the Distance, a Chicago-based arts nonprofit, prepares for its latest production, “Tell Me What You Remember.”

The show, which follows the true story of one family’s life-changing battle with depression, is designed to show the audience how deeply depression can affect both those who suffer from it and those around them. 

Using the power of theater, Erasing The Distance aims to shed light on mental health issues, according to Brighid O’Shaughnessy, Erasing the Distance’s founder and executive artistic director. The organization sits down with people who are willing to tell their stories about dealing with mental illness and turns those stories into monologues for performances, O’Shaughnessy said. 

The organization pursues one public initiative every year based on audience feedback, and for years, audiences have been asking the organization to do something focused on families, she said.

“We had never looked at one connected unit of people,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We wanted to have a forum where we could maybe tackle a more non-monologue format and look at what happens when those ripple effects move through an entire constellation of people.”

Depression affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, about 6.7 percent of the adult U.S. population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

The experiences shared by friends and family members suffering from depression are often neglected, and going through something so life-altering can not only affect the individual, but those they are surrounded by as well, O’Shaughnessy said. 

Families are often not a part of the initial discussion when people share stories with Erasing The Distance, O’Shaughnessy said.

“I feel like families are profoundly affected, and we often don’t hear from families because they’re not the focus of the [storytelling] sessions,” O’Shaughnessy said. “[Families aren’t] the focus of the traditional clinical intervention either.”

Nikki Zaleski, director of “Tell Me What You Remember,” said the play provides a level of catharsis to the audience and encourages viewers to dig deep into their own experiences with friends or family that have mental illnesses.

“This [play] is definitely a really emotionally complex play, and people should come ready to feel with our actors,” Zaleski said. “[The audience] can expect to dig deep into one family’s narrative regarding depression and even explore a little bit of their own.”

“Tell Me What You Remember” shows the audience the truth behind the original family’s story, actress Jennifer Mathews said. There are a lot of aspects of family life that everyone will be able to relate to, she said.

“The central relationship in the play is a mother and daughter,” Mathews said. “I think there are a lot of people that can relate to the very complex dynamics that go into that type of relationship, regardless of whether or not you have dealt with depression or anxiety in your family.”

Mathews said working on productions with Erasing the Distance is different compared to other shows she has worked on. 

“What’s specifically different is that we are aware of the fact that these are true words, stories and experiences,” Mathews said. “It requires a lot of trust [to share these stories] and we realize that. We take that responsibility seriously.”

Mathews said she would be incredibly happy if the audience members left the show feeling empowered to share their stories with others, whether it be a family member, friend or stranger. 

“My hope is that the [audience’s] biggest takeaway is sometimes we find it hardest to turn to the people we love the most,” Mathews said. “When we’re hurting or when we’re feeling lost or when we feel like we need help and we’re not sure how to ask.”

The play explores the idea of putting a voice to a topic people are told to keep quiet about, Zaleski said. 

“It’s OK to share your real experiences with mental health issues and it’s OK to seek support when you need it,” Zaleski said. “[The audience shouldn’t be] afraid to share their ugliness with each other, even when it feels hard and even when it involves trauma.”

“Tell Me What You Remember” will run every Monday and Tuesday Dec. 1–16 at the Filament Theatre, 4041 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door and $15 for students and seniors. For more information on “Tell Me What You Remember” and the organization, visit Erasingthedistance.org.

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