“Vulnerability is one of the most important things that we as humans have to interact. And it’s the most underrated.” These are the words of sophomore Halle Schall, who played themself, among other roles, in “Mental,” a show that explored mental health on the Colorado College campus.
The seed for “Mental” was planted in senior director Kaitlyn Hickmann’s first year. “I knew that I was interested in creating some project that had to do with mental health,” Hickmann said. “We all felt that it was really stigmatized at CC.”
Initially, she envisioned her project as a film, but after watching a “Night of Racial Justice,” Hickmann realized she could make it a live show. The idea was to talk about an important but taboo issue by using the experiences of people on campus.
Hickmann sent out a survey, hoping to get at least 10 responses. By the end of the first day, she had 20. Senior Caleigh Cassidy, who was in charge of spreading the word, said that their expectations continued to be exceeded after the show debuted. “Before the show I was just frantically texting my friends … I was afraid no one would show up,” Cassidy said. That night, they set up 50 chairs. So many people attended that there were two rows on the floor. The next night, there were 75 seats; every single one was filled.
The stories were raw and personal. Though most of the stories were pulled from community responses, the cast wrote about issues that resonated with them during the process of turning these narratives into a script. “The things that people chose to write about were the things that they had the most experience with as people,” Hickmann said. “Everyone had their own process.”
The show began with the cast in a line, looking out at the audience. When the lights went up, they stepped forward one at a time to frame the show. Willis: “To me, mental illness is a terrifying emptiness in your chest coupled with voices in your head that leave you unable to function.” Charlotte: “I wrap my arms around others because I can’t fit them around myself.” Hannah: “I keep looking, almost hoping, half-excited, for the thing that will take me out.”
These words are not attributed to the character someone is playing, but to a person who is living and working on this campus. From the beginning, the audience is forced to question this reality on our campus. “Life is hard, and we don’t talk about it enough,” said Hickmann.
The lack of communication is especially difficult for men, which is why the first scene was so refreshing. “All the men got together and had a meeting where we discussed what it feels like to be male in America, of operating under the taboo that men aren’t supposed to be emotional,” said sophomore Daniel Walsh, who both wrote and performed in the scene ‘Mask.’
In order to make the cast comfortable enough with each other to have these kinds of discussions, Hickmann held the first rehearsal in her home. They played some icebreakers and then split into small groups to read through the submitted stories. She wanted things to come organically. “In creating a supportive mental health community, you don’t really need to talk about mental health too often,” she said. “You just need it to feel like you could if you needed to.”
The show tackled serious issues, but it wasn’t hopeless. “It all came back to being okay, almost every scene,” said junior Travis Aerenson, who was in the audience. “Mental” was also funny. In her pre-show speech, Hickmann gave this disclaimer to the audience: “There are funny moments, and I want everyone to know that it’s alright to laugh.” The show reflects life and humor can be a coping mechanism. Schall’s piece had me sobbing, but I laughed, too. “The humor part came naturally when I was writing it,” Schall said. “It feels representative of my life, even with my trauma. It’s not everything that I am. I’m also a very funny person!”
Schall’s parents were in the audience on the second night. When I spoke with them before the show, they were quiet. Wendy, their mother, said she knew what they were going to talk about. “I brought tissues,” she admitted. When Schall went onstage and began talking about their sexual assault, Mr. and Mrs. Schall reached out and held hands quietly.
Schall’s piece was about how “trauma isn’t a one-time thing you can get over in six counseling sessions.” They were onstage, in part, to force the audience to face that truth. “It sucks when something like that happens to someone you love,” Schall said. “But if you are pretending it didn’t happen, that doesn’t work for me.”
Junior Willis Zetter, who was featured prominently in the show, said the response has been “really incredibly positive.” At the end of the performance, an audience member told Hickmann that “this show could save lives.” Nancy Hickmann, her mother, said, “It seems too good not to share with a broader audience.” There are plans to run “Mental” again next year, with a different cast and different subjects.
Many people told Schall they were proud of their vulnerability and courage. “It feels really good,” they said.