Theater Profile: Fisher Players at Matrix Theatre
Screw stigma: Troupe creates original works about mental illness
“People don’t have a clue about what we have to go through,” Melanie Ortiz, a poet and member of the Fisher Players, said about people with mental illness.
And she’s right.
Those of us who have never experienced mental illness cannot imagine what daily life is like for those who do. There’s a stigma attached to people with mental disorders – a duality, experts say: We pity them, yet they frighten us. Most simply ignore their plight as if they are an invisible race.
Education, of course, is the key to understanding, so with some grant money in hand, a social services organization and a professional theater company joined forces two years ago to create a program that uses live theater to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.
“We didn’t really know what we were going to do,” confessed Holly Townsend of the Fisher Clubhouse, a psycho-social rehabilitation program on Detroit’s southwest side for adults with severe and persistent mental illness. “We just knew it was going to be a theater workshop where we’d learn to write and act.”
The troupe, called the Fisher Players, meets twice weekly at the nearby Matrix Theatre Company where members create, write and stage plays that focus on their issues. Two plays have been produced so far; a third premieres in mid-November.
Much of the theater training comes from the professionals that work at Matrix Theatre, including filmmaker Alisa Lomax who functions as the troupe’s program manager.
“I facilitate, I try to help them get the work done,” Lomax said. “What’s been really cool is that there’s this group of people who have been told repeatedly that they aren’t whole or worthy or whatever, and they’re doing stuff I can’t do. I write, but I can’t write collaboratively; they do that well. They get on stage and act, and I fall apart on stage. They can memorize a script, and I can’t. I’m in awe of what they do! They’re people just like everybody else!”
Members of the Fisher Players come from all walks of life, and each brings to the program a unique set of experiences with the mental health system.
And one discovered a talent he never knew he had.
“I hate theater. I’ve always hated theater and theater people, since I was 18 and was introduced to that crowd,” John Bicknell recalled with a chuckle. But after being talked into checking out the troupe – and after walking out on stage for the first time in the group’s first play – Bicknell changed his tune. He’s since become one of its busiest writers and strongest advocates.
“It’s something I get a lot of enjoyment out of.”
Plus, he said, it’s like being part of a family. “The Fisher Players are a really unique group of people. We’re like children: We’re nave, we don’t know what we’re doing, nobody’s trained us – but we do it anyway. And we’ve got some real characters among our cast of characters.”
For Ortiz, it was the ability to combine her love of the arts and the chance to help advocate the cause that brought her recently to the Fisher Players.
“I want to get my feet wet in all kinds of ways,” she said. “I want to act, I want to write and I want to do what I can to make sure everything gels together.”
And as a Latina, she’s proud to help put a personal face on an issue that is often swept under the carpet within her community.
“We’re advocating for ourselves and for others who cannot advocate for themselves,” she said. “Anyone can get mental illness. It’s not confined to any one or two groups of people.”
Some of the troupe’s performances are targeted to specific audiences, such as workers within the health care system. Others are open to the public.
Overall, response to the Fisher Players has been very positive, Townsend said.
“A lot of people have said they had no idea what was going on, especially in adult foster care homes.”
In fact, anecdotal evidence revealed that one group from an adult foster care home attended a performance and then went home and complained about their conditions. As a result, changes were made at that home.
It’s news like that, that makes their endeavor worthwhile, everyone agrees.
“You feel great,” Bicknell beamed.
‘Tuesdays at 4:00’
About a dozen people scurry about the stage at a recent rehearsal of the troupe’s latest play, “Tuesdays at 4:00.” The actors nervously skim their scripts; the lighting man focuses his instruments. An unsuspecting visitor would notice nothing unusual about the setting; it’s a scene observed at every theater since the beginning of the art form.
And that’s at least one of the points the Fisher Players is trying to make.
Four writers crafted the script for “Tuesdays at 4:00” – Bicknell included – based upon the characters and improvisations created by the cast. It’s about a self-help group called Support Alliance for the Mentally Ill that meets every Tuesday at 4 p.m. to discuss their problems.
“I think this one is really going to hit some people,” Bicknell predicted. “It’s not just emotionally punching; it’s intellectually punching, too!”
It’s also a story that Bicknell believes needs to be told.
“We could do a pity play where everybody’s going to go, ‘Oh, didn’t the loonies do good tonight?’ Or we could do a good play where people go, ‘WowÉthese people are actors!’ I think the work we’re doing is vital, so screw stigma: We have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Yeah, we might have disabilities, but look at what we can do.’ And we’re trying to help you, too!”
“Tuesdays at 4:00” will be staged Thursday through Sunday by the Fisher Players at the Matrix Theatre Company, 2730 Bagley, Detroit, Nov. 11 – 21. Tickets: $8 – $15. 313-967-0999. www.matrixtheatre.org. Information about the Fisher Clubhouse can be obtained by calling 313-961-0360.