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Arts & Culture

WNY Inclusive Theater knows about stigma personally, so they're performing plays about it

Nick Lippa

PTSD. Eating disorders. Depression. Inclusive Theater of Western New York is tackling the stigma around serious issues at their second annual festival of shorts. WBFO’s Nick Lippa spoke with some of the actors, some of whom who also wrote the shorts, about what audiences can expect from their performances this weekend.

How do you accurately portray stigma surrounding mental health conditions through theater? Very carefully, according to actors like Dave Goddard, who plays an Afghanistan veteran with PTSD in a short titled, ‘The Only Easy Day was Yesterday.;

“I’m not a veteran myself, but I can go back to a time in my life where I was in a very dark place. I’m accessing that place and hopefully I can do it justice,” said Goddard.

Goddard, who also wrote a short titled ‘Page Two,’ only recently got in to acting, but says he can emotionally relate to the subject material at hand.

“It’s interesting because I really haven’t felt that way in a long time. I got help [and] came back from a dark place and I’m doing pretty good today. But going back there to try and do this role, it brings me right back to some of those feelings,” he said. “The feelings of being trapped and feelings of being no way out and you just don’t know what’s going on.”

Cat Kwiatkowski plays Goddard’s wife in the short.

“We end up screaming at each other in it and you want to cry during it,” said Kwiatkowski. “It’s an extraordinarily dramatic play. By the time we’re done, we are emotionally wrought if we run it two times in a row.”

This is where Kwiatkowski says Inclusive Theater’s model for learning their parts shines.

“A lot of times you hear about how theater becomes a family. With inclusive, it’s a different sort of family,” she said. “They don’t let you have major conflicts with each other. It’s all about working things out and growing closer and making it a better art form for everyone and making sure everyone’s comfortable with what they are doing, which is huge because a lot of times you get people who will 'diva out' in theater.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Cat Kwiatkowski rehearsing alongside Dave Goddard

Inclusive is in the name, but it really does get applied in practice. Artistic Director Marilyn Erentsen-Scott said the theater needs to be a place where the actors feel comfortable to learn, especially when many have not been given the opportunity to act in mainstream productions in the past.

“They might be allowed to audition, but they’re not seriously considered and I’ve been told that behind the scenes that’s true. And we know that because there are very few of them that do mainstream theater. When they do theater it’s generally for disability companies that are funded to create a theater experience for people with disabilities. They might have some non-disabled people there. But it’s not about their talent,” Erentsen-Scott said.

“What we want to do is take people who have an interest and maybe let them explore their talent but not put them on stage if they’re not capable of doing the role. We feel it’s patronizing to do that. We want to find people with disabilities who have talent and give them the opportunity.”

Kwiatkowski said that makes everyone more coachable.

“They know it’s friendly and it’s just meant to bring them up further instead of, ‘Well I don’t think you’re that great.’ Instead it’s, ‘No, let’s get you to what level that you want to be at so that you can do your best with it.’”

Ali Stroker became the first person in a wheelchair to win a Tony award earlier this year for best featured actress in a musical for her role as Ado Annie in ‘Oklahoma!’ While that has raised awareness about inclusivity in theater, Erentsen-Scott notes many Inclusive Theater actors deal with several types of stigmas on a daily basis.

“Someone, say in a wheelchair or with some other visible disability, has to overcome when they come to audition for a role,” she said. “People automatically assume or make assumptions about that person. They don’t see the talent, they don’t see the ability and they don’t see the intellect.”

All the actors get paid for their work, as well as the teaching artists that come in to coach them. However, actors only get what’s made from the show after basic expenses are paid for, which is currently usually less than minimum wage. The props, wardrobe, and Erentsen-Scott’s role are done for free.

Erentsen-Scott said they plan to become 501(c)(3) organization in the future to help with this. Still, for these artists it’s more about their passion for the theater than anything else and Erentsen-Scott supports them as much as she can.

Quentin Gray wrote a short called ‘Headspace,’ where logic, emotion, and masculinity are represented as parts of one man’s brain. He started writing it a year ago. When he heard Erentsen-Scott was putting plays together, he decided to write for this event.

Gray wants to challenge the first impressions people may have that are a product of inaccurate mental illness preconceptions.

“They say that they see people that are crazy, that they are unstable. They are not going to have a good family life and stuff like that.” Gray said. “Talk about depression and about the stigma that only a certain amount of people are depressed and stuff like that and that’s not true. Pretty much all of us get depressed. All of us have moments that will (feel) depressed sometimes. We just got to learn not to let that rule our lives.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Gray said at times the process of writing the play became very personal.

“I kind of got emotional sometimes from the overall experience from it. I deal with depression all the time. I know eventually in the future I am going to need to get help from a therapist and stuff like that. As of right now, how I deal with my depression is through theater and acting,” he said.

Actress Queen Robinson plays logic in this short.

“Just because they are different does not mean they are not like everybody else. You don’t know the journey that they’re on,” Robinson said. “So before you say to the person that you see that may be walking funny, maybe you should find out what there is or what you can do to help them other than just looking around and saying, ‘Oh he must be weird.’”

Robinson, like several of the other actors, calls this one of the best working experiences they’ve ever had. She hopes these plays can help their audience empathize.

“In this world, everything is not the same as it was 25 years ago,” Robinson said. “Things are changing and we need to change with the times.”

Kwiatkowski used to run a college dorm and saw things like addiction and depression on a regular basis.

“Looking at depression, looking at anxiety, you can see certain things when people are having a panic attack. You can see certain things when people have depression but otherwise they look absolutely normal,” Kwiatkowski said. “And that’s actually one of the biggest takeaways you can take from these is that people going through these is that people going through these things will still outwardly appear normal, but they can have a ton of internal turmoil that they are letting out in the right way.”

Credit inclusivetheaterofwny

Challenging a stigma can be an uphill battle to start. Many of the folks at Inclusive Theater happen to have firsthand experience dealing with different forms of it. Erentsen-Scott believes having a safe place to explore feelings on the matter can raise awareness while providing a quality production.  

“We really want this to be a place where you’re coming to a theater, you’re not coming to a disability theater,” Erentsen-Scott said.

Final performances run this weekend at the Foundry on Northhampton Street in Buffalo. Friday’s performance starts at 7 p.m. For more information, visit inclusivetheaterofwny.com.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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