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Theater Commentary:

Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center’s "SERENADING REALITY: TOTALLY HUMAN" at Griffin Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Last summer, I had the opportunity to experience an invigorating rehearsal with the artists participating in Thresholds Theatre Arts Project at Thresholds Psychiatric Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln Park. I was writing an article and felt honored to witness such an energized collaboration taking shape before my eyes.

Professional actors teamed up with Thresholds members (many of them in the process of overcoming schizophrenia, manic depression, anxiety and personality disorders) for a four-month writing-acting workshop. Education in performance skills and storytelling techniques culminated in a dramatic showcase based on members’ stories.

Now in its eleventh season, Thresholds Theatre Arts Project just debuted its latest inspiring theatrical effort, "Serenading Reality: Totally Human," a series of personal recollections about friendship and survival, at Griffin Theatre. This tightly focused 50-minute work – shaped with great care and a gentle sense of humor by co-directors Marti Szalai-Raymond and Brighid O’Shaughnessy – combines the integral talents of 13 Thresholds members and 4 professional actors.

During the post-show discussion, participant Dorothy Wagner Plaut (involved with the Project since its inception) expressed her love of story theater, citing its "element of surprise and creativity." She underscored one of the show’s most significant lines: "I never want to punish my child for being spontaneous."

"Serenading Reality" opens with the ensemble asking, "What are you holding onto?; What are you letting go of?" The performers then proceed to share revelatory snippets about themselves. One likes to cook; another likes "to eat other people’s cooking." Then the reflections grow more profound: applying to college; holding down a job; coping with the death of a parent – leading to two fortifying acknowledgements: "I struggle with mental illness"; and "I’m a strong survivor."

What follows are funny and moving poems, songs, stories, improvisations -- all of which center on the theme of multifarious degrees of friendship and love.

A jovial Tom Miner pours out his admiration for his best friend and fellow ensemble member Jessica Salis; Plaut delivers a sprightly tale of her five engagements; Cheryl Almgren explains how someone reached out to her and helped her through a debilitating physical condition; Ken Hartfield wrote the lyrics and Mark Czyzewski composed the music for "Love Serenadin’", about a love that never dies; Cathy Lewis belts out a triumphant "If I Could"; Czyzewski recounts an incident of random violence; Robert Louis Reinberg reflects on a family trauma; and David Yabroff reminisces about a girl named "Sunna" whom he met in Japan.

The entire ensemble is: Almgren, Charissa Armon, Lena Bryant, Czyzewski, Kevin Gay, Mark Gonciarz, Tara Handron, Hartfield, Lewis, Mike James Margoutas, Miner, Craig Olson, Plaut, Reinberg, Salis, Jim Wooldridge and Yabroff.

Thresholds is a 42-year-old not-for-profit agency dedicated to creating dignified independent living opportunities for persons with mental illness. The Theatre Arts Project grew out of initiatives emerging from Blind Parrot Productions , a small not-for-profit theater, and Thresholds. In 1988, Betsy Ingram – then executive director of Blind Parrot Productions – approached Thresholds with the original idea for the project. A few years earlier, she had volunteered on a psychiatric ward at Denver General Hospital and noticed the high number of talented artists who spent time drawing, writing or telling stories.

Ingram envisioned that a theater company, with its tolerance for various forms of self-expression, might be a good place for people with severe mental illness to find a sense of community and practice social skills. She thought they, in turn, could bring inspiring life experiences to the theater company.

The program grew and, by 1990, the Thresholds Theatre Arts Project took shape as a workshop following by a public performance.

But a show like "Serenading Reality", while proving the cathartic power of the arts, is also capable of transcending the theatrical universe. It’s obvious that Thresholds members have increased their confidence and forged highly supportive friendships. The professional actors involved frequently credit members with encouraging them to deliver honest performances. After the opening-night performance, most of us got on the same bus, and the performers’ energy and joy visibly extended to their off-stage lives.

As co-director Marti Szalai-Raymond observes, "I love to see how they [Thresholds members] create their own ensemble, and how they take that sense of ensemble with them into their daily lives."

These enthusiastic and dedicated artists continue to serenade society with their reality – and they make such beautiful, stirring and uplifting music together.•

Thresholds Theatre Arts Project’s "Serenading Reality: Totally Human" runs at 8 p.m. July 31, August 1, 6, 7 and 8 at Griffin Theatre, 5404 N. Clark. Tickets: $15. Call 773-281-3800, ext. 2417.

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