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necessary whispers

observe. connect. make new.

Month

May 2018

Artists and Depression

I recently read an article in which the author linked depression and the artistic temperament. At first glance, I was a little annoyed. The whole “depressed writer,” “melancholy comedian,” “chaotic performer” thing seems to me a dangerous sort of stereotype to propagate and to buy into. Plus, I know plenty of artistic types who do not struggle with depression. I think.

 

I think it’s a dangerous stereotype because sometimes artists believe that if they seek treatment for their mental health issues, they will lose the edge they otherwise have to create. And I understand the fear. Antidepressants—especially when they are first taken—can cause foggy thinking, fatigue, a dulling of the emotions and/or other physical side effects that can simply be emotionally exhausting. But I don’t think any of the things I just mentioned are the reason artists sometimes choose not to take their meds. I think the bigger reason is that antidepressants lift the mood from the darker places of the mind. Those dark nights of the soul through which many artists create do provide a certain kind of raw availability that allow him/her to grab onto the minds of the viewers (or readers) and to pull them into the heights of the imagination, as well as into the depths and corners and sink holes of life.

 

Also, artists search. I will speak for myself: I am on a constant quest to do exactly what Walter Mitty urges us to do in his film, “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel.” That is, after all, the purpose of life, right? Searches, journeys, quests . . . these are the reasons I create. When I am acting, directing, drawing or writing I am striving to understand. Understand what? That depends on the day. The what changes but the why remains consistent: connection. I create in an effort to connect.

 

Depression makes it hard to connect. Not only with other people but, sometimes, with one’s self. In the moments—or seasons—of isolation that occur within the darker nights of depression, an artist can turn to her art. She can reach inside her thoughts with one hand, grab onto some truth worth exploring with the other, and then pull herself into the exploration: through words, paint, music, a character . . . she can connect with the world through her own creative sensibility. I think maybe she gets used to connecting to her world in that way because connecting one’s self to ideas is a lot easier than connecting to other people. Connecting the deeper parts of one’s self to a concept or a universal truth is easier than connecting one’s self to another person’s individual truth. An artist can work on her art in isolation, thus connecting to thought, but she cannot build relationships in isolation because relationships require a mutual agreement to engage. Thus, the artist can explore ideas, including her own depression, without fear of being discovered. In fact, quite often, it is the artist who appears in her own work . . . some version or angle of herself can be found in one piece, while a completely different side or struggle can be found in another.

 

Something I have come to learn as an observer of art is that if you spend time with one artist’s work—if you take time to study her progression over time—you will come to know the artist herself. Not in totality, but in her parts. If you watch, look, listen or read any artist, you will certainly be filled with connective topics to discuss at once upon meeting her in real life. All of her parts are there in some measure.

 

I don’t often talk about my battle with depression. I almost called it a “struggle,” but that would be sugar coating it. It is a battle and I fight to win the war more often than I would ever let on to anyone else. I don’t keep my battle quiet out of fear of rejection or pride (I think) but, instead, I keep it quiet because I don’t like to complain. I don’t like to feel helpless or to appear helpless. I don’t like to be complicated or make others’ lives more difficult by adding my own burden into the baskets of their minds. I prefer not to need help (okay, that’s prideful) and I do prefer to be the one people come to for strength. Whatever “strength” means.

 

Lately, I have been realizing that my “strength” may never have been what I thought it was. I don’t mean I never had any or that I don’t have any now. What I mean is that the anatomy of my strength is not toughness or an ability to “power up” against people or things. My strength is not loud or boisterous. It does not run or flex or (something). My strength is simple: it is showing up. My strength is in listening, taking steps toward sharing my own life and in making connections between me and others, as well as making connections between people and ideas.

 

That’s kind of it. My strength is a journey from my heart to the heart’s of others. Whether it be students, friends, family, colleagues or even strangers, my strength is in seeing others.

 

So, as an artist who is depressed more than she will ever give into or let on, I would like to show myself. I would like to raise my hand and say, “I will allow you to see my hand here as one who is on a journey wearing a backpack filled with depression. There are other things in there, too. There is also laughter, questions, memories, dreams, curiosities and a whole lot of love. And . . . I see you, too.”

 

Copyright Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: The featured painting was created by Antoine Josse.  Please feel free to visit his Facebook page: Antoine Josse’s Facebook

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Into the Woods and Out of the Woods

The most memorable moment I have ever experienced in the theatre occurred when I was sitting in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015. It was my sister’s first year as an actress at OSF and she was playing Cinderella in their production of Into the Woods. In general, I am not a big fan of musicals but I was a little bit in awe of my “little” sister and her new home-away-from-home—both environmentally and professionally—so I was pretty excited to be sitting in the audience.

 

Environmentally, Ashland, Oregon is one of the most beautiful little towns to which I have travelled. It is replete with mountains to hike, a valley to explore and the kind of blue sky you assume you can reach up and touch. Professionally, OSF can be considered a mecca for professional actors. If you have been hired there, it is likely you will have the opportunity to play upon their boards for as long as you wish to stay. And so, in my sister’s first year she played two leads in two of their musicals . . . not bad for a kid who started out saying, “I never want to be an actor like my big sister.”

 

The memorable moment to which I am referring above occurred during the finale of Into the Woods. It was a cool summer night and the stars seemed so close in the open-air theatre, I assume they also had to pay admission to watch the show. For the final number of the play, the entire company is on stage and they are singing about the journeys each of their characters have taken throughout the story. All of their journeys are rife with struggle, darkness and light, and instances in which they individually lose their way but, eventually, make their way out of the woods, again. In case you haven’t seen the play, the woods are a metaphor for walking through the dangerous, difficult places in life for the purpose of facing the dangerous, difficult places in one’s own heart and mind. At the very end of the final song, the lyrics seem to turn the focus from the characters on stage and turn a proverbial mirror toward the audience. Almost as a challenge:

 

All: Into the woods–you have to grope,

But that’s the way you learn to cope.

Into the woods to find there’s hope

Of getting through the journey.

Into the woods, each time you go,

There’s more to learn of what you know.

Into the woods, but not too slow–

Into the woods, it’s nearing midnight–

Into the woods to mind the wolf,

To heed the witch, to honor the giant,

To mind, to heed, to find, to think, to teach, to join, to go to the Festival!

Into the woods,

Into the woods,

Into the woods,

Then out of the woods–

And happy ever after!

 

Cinderella: I wish…

 

That “I wish” was my most memorable moment in theatre. There are a lot of reasons for that, all of which are equal in their importance. First, the entire production was stunning. Second, the idea that the action of facing one’s giants is where true revelation and growth occur was not only meaningful to me; it was a reflection of my life at the time. The play helped me to see where I was in my own journey as I considered the beginnings, middles and ends of the characters’ journeys on stage. Third, when Cinderella sings “I wish” it is a call to hope and further journeys in life. It is a reminder that even if we exit the woods ragged and less innocent than we were when we went in, there is always hope; always a rejuvenation to fight another day. When you lose one wish, there is always another waiting to be discovered. When Jennie—my sister— sang that line I remembered, all in one instant, her entire journey from my point of view. All of the woods through which she had to traipse to be standing down center on one of the most famous stages in the United States with one of the most talented companies I had to that point witnessed, all standing behind her.

 

You see, nothing is ever just one thing. Even the plot of a play writes itself onto the minds of the audience members’ so uniquely that the story itself twists and bends a thousand different ways as we all sit side by side hearing the same words. The same words are imbued with completely unique images, emotions, memories and questions. And so it is in life.

 

I have been thinking of my experience with Into the Woods lately because I have also been listening to another musical that I think is similar in some ways: The Greatest Showman. The connection, for me, is in the song “Greatest Show.” Where Into the Woods uses the woods as a metaphor for “the journey,” The Greatest Showman uses the circus. The circus becomes that place to which we all travel for one reason or another (whether it be to escape or to be amazed by life) and we end up facing reality instead. To put it another way, the cast of The Greatest Showman could just as easily sing the words to the finale of Into the Woods rather than the words to “From Now On,” which is their final song. Imagine Hugh Jackman and company singing:

 

Into the woods–you have to grope,

But that’s the way you learn to cope.

Into the woods to find there’s hope

Of getting through the journey.

 

Instead, he sings:

 

I drank champagne with kings and queens

The politicians praised my name

But those are someone else’s dreams

The pitfalls of the man I became

For years and years

I chased their cheers

The crazy speed of always needing more

But when I stop

And see you there

I remember who all this was for.

 

In conclusion, I really love both these musicals because they both acknowledge that life is a journey fraught with both shadow and light. It is messy and we are clumsy, and it is hard and we are fallible, and it is beautiful and we are sometimes beautiful too, and it is logical and we are emotional beings, and it is emotional and we are logical beings . . .

 

The woods change us. The circus changes us. Life changes us. As someone who has often feared change, I find that lately change doesn’t seem so bad. Instead, it seems more like an adventure. I am grateful for that.

 

So into the woods you go again,

You have to every now and then.

Into the woods, no telling when,

Be ready for the journey.

 

copyright: Jill Szoo Wilson

Photo Credit: Denizens of the town head into the woods (Rachael Warren, Miles Fletcher, Javier Muñoz, Robin Goodrin Nordli, Jennie Greenberry). Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

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