Many, many folks have dealt with depression. Really, more people than we would think have dealt with suicidal thoughts.
I have been interacting with the progress that the psychological and psychiatric world has made in developing language to help deal with and process these kinds of things. Certainly there’s been pharmaceutical work as well, but I’ve always been more interested in the language aspect of it. One fascinating mystery and enigma of the play/source material from which we developed our show was that suicidal people who are truly suicidal tend not to talk or reach out to their loved ones. They tend to go away and hide and eventually disappear. Isolation is a far more frequent outcome than connection. It’s unusual that someone who truly is “on the way out” would feel the need to work out things with someone in real time. The fact that the playwright chose to set up that situation, where the daughter wants to take her own life but still needs to talk out everything with her mother gave me as a director some, uh, unique storytelling challenges because I felt that in order to do this honestly we needed to figure out why Marsha Norman depicted suicidal ideation in this way. We needed to figure out why someone who has already decided to shut the door and leave this sphere would take the time to sit down and have a calm conversation with their mother.
A friend of mine committed suicide when he was a teenager, and I’m from the Vietnam era…so I lost several friends to heroin addiction after they came back from Vietnam. I’m all too familiar with loss and death. I’ve certainly been around a lot of self-destructive stuff, and have witnessed my own friends being in spirals like these. I went through an episode where I was really dangerously depressed myself, and a separate occasion where I was really dangerously suicidal. I think that many of us have been there in extreme times of stress and loss.
This is what gave me the idea to present the show as a Zoom call; we’ve just been in this pandemic where we’re all isolated and isolation is one of the most dangerous parts of suicidal thinking. If you’re alone, there aren’t any stops. There aren’t any governors that are going to pull you back from the edge.
The first concern that came up is that on social media you’re not in a theater where someone would have bought a ticket, seen the poster, perhaps even read the play in advance; your audience just stumbles upon it. And so I immediately became concerned about what do we do if this play triggers something in folks who are unfamiliar with the backstory, who just wandered in because the visuals look cool, and they end up falling into the pit? Sheila Houlahan, our executive producer and one of our lead actresses, immediately had the idea to contact people who would know how to handle these kinds of delicate situations and ended up generating a post-show panel to help people get connected to resources for accessible mental health care. That way, anyone who has to process these kinds of big, dark feelings can have a forum to do so and can get a little feedback.
My thoughts around this production all really boil down to: how can we make the world a nicer place? How can we make the world better for our fellow beings? We all have different opinions about what that would be and what that would look like, but it’s my job as an artist to see if I can lighten up somebody’s load for half an hour. If I can help ease somebody’s burden with my work, then let’s do that. If not that, then maybe let’s pursue something that would open some new doors of thought to people that maybe haven’t gone here before, that could get them to empathize with the subject matter. As artists, we’re not really essential; in general, only the absurdly richest cultures can afford to pay people to do what we do. Therefore, if we can use our art to help someone feel better for even a short while, that effort will be worthwhile in the long run.
Put yourself in my shoes: you’re creating the film, you have no idea how people are going to respond to it until it’s already set in stone, you’ve edited it. You’ve spent all this money, and at the end of the day people are either going to like it or not. At this point in the creative process, you end up with basically having a conversation with yourself: Do I think this is good? Does this take me by surprise? Does this take me in new directions? Ultimately, you just have to hope for the best. I do think, you know, between Ellen McLain’s approach and Sheila Houlahan’s approach and my approach and our cinematographer’s approach and our editor’s approach, I, as the director, have tried to set up the playground; these are the boundaries we can’t go outside of, but otherwise now is the time to play, to go absolutely nuts, to show me what you’ve got. I think that translates to people; if you can tell that these voices are coming in unconstrained with the least amount of etiquette possible and telling this story, sharing their true feelings on the subject, then I think that structure can encourage people to talk to each other. I believe that this piece can encourage our viewers to say and think that if all these people can talk to each other about their struggles in just this one piece, then perhaps I can talk and reach out to people outside of this piece. Ultimately, interconnectedness is what saves us from self-destruction and self-annihilation. Connectivity saves lives. If this piece can be the inspiration behind people reaching outside of themselves and asking for help while giving help in return to other people in their community, then all of this work will have meant something. It will be worthwhile. It will be a project I’m proud to have worked on indeed.
Night, Mother premiers exclusively on Twitch this September. Get your free viewing link here: bit.ly/twitch-nightmother