Hoping to share his own mental health story and help destigmatize these issues in the public eye, Bowdoin alumnus Zach Burton ’14 ventured into the world of theater and debuted his first play, “The Manic Monologues,” in May.
Burton and his girlfriend Elisa Hofmeister created the show in the wake of Burton’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder. In the weeks after his diagnosis, Burton says he and Hofmeister felt dismayed by the information available about the condition.
“It was so isolating,” said Burton. “You’re googling symptoms, googling people’s experiences, and most of what was available online is exclusively horror stories. It was so isolating.”
Burton and Hofmeister wanted to share the less frightening, everyday stories of mental illness. That didn’t mean erasing the bad, but rather highlighting the mundane and sometimes uplifting aspects of people’s experience.
“We hope audiences come away with a little bit of enlightenment around how much diversity there is in how mental illness manifests itself,” said Burton. “It’s not just a tragedy. It’s a spectrum.”
Burton cited “The Vagina Monologues,” a play that utilized personal stories to explore the topic of female sexuality, as an inspiration. Burton and Hofmeister wanted to break down the taboos of mental illness in the same way “The Vagina Monologues” did with sexuality.
Though neither Burton nor Hofmeister had any theater experience (Burton double majored in earth and oceanographic science and German while at Bowdoin), they decided that a play was the best medium through which to share their message.
“Theater really makes viewers confront the stories they’re watching. It can be even more moving than reading a written piece or loosely engaging with the video online,” said Burton.
The two began collecting stories first at Stanford University, where Burton is a graduate student, but found little success. They received only one story from the community and received no backing from the administration or student theater groups.
Eventually, they were connected to a number of mental health awareness Facebook groups, and the stories came flooding in. Burton says the decisions of which to include were difficult, but the play now includes stories of people from across the U.S. and Canada, dealing with all kinds of mental illnesses.
Working with a group of advisors that included mental health professionals and prize-winning editors and playwrights, the two compiled 18 stories into a two-act show. Burton produced the show and Hofmeister directed.
Burton says the cast brought together actors from many different majors at Stanford, uniting people who cared about both theater and mental health advocacy.
“The Manic Monologues” had a three day run at Stanford in May and opened to sold out shows with standing ovations every night. Burton and Hofmeister were blown away by the reception.
Burton says the emotional responses ranged from laughter to sobs, a reaction that sometimes threw him off.
“I almost forgot some of my lines because I made eye contact with someone who was crying,” said Burton, when he was onstage performing a monologue about his own experience.
Since the debut, word has gotten out about “The Manic Monologues.” Burton and Hofmeister will perform shows at University of California Los Angeles in February, and another theater group in Des Moines will perform it independently in November. Burton is excited about the play’s expansion.
“Elise and I always intended for this to be something that anyone could put on themselves,” he said.
Burton hopes the show can be a tool for campuses to use in discussions about disability and diversity in their communities. Student theater group Masque and Gown is considering producing the show in the fall of 2020 for Mental Health Awareness Week.
According to Burton, the play’s warm reception represents progress in the way our society confronts mental health.
“It’s an indicator that maybe the world is in some way ready to have this conversation,” he said.