When Sam Mattingly of SM Communications wrote me about a script she just read dealing with mental health issues, I knew I had to find out more. You see, I've had my fair share of bouts with mental health issues throughout the course of my life. From depression to suicidal thoughts, I've had my lows, but I have always found a way to make it through the rough times whether that's because I've reached out to friends/family/a therapist for help or found solace in music, but I think it's also because of the advice my mom gave me when I was a child and that was "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." So, whenever I get down, I remember this advice and it helps me through.
The script Sam was talking about was Monica Hannush's Under: A New Musical, which will be part of this year's NYC's International Fringe Festival, running from August 19-23 at Theatre 80 in NYC's East Village (80 St. Marks Place). This timely musical shines a light on the silent mental health crisis on the rise among students in the American university system today. Under: A New Musical, is based in large part on playwright Monica Hannush’s personal struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. The project began as the audacious idea of five daring young people at Yale, who saw a way to give voice to the insecurities, doubts, lost loves and fears that often accompany university life. Click here for tickets!
1. Your show, Under: A New Musical, is making its New York premiere in the 2015 NYC International Fringe Festival from August 19-23. What made you want to have "Under's" New York debut in the Fringe Festival? Fringe has an attractive mix of accessibility and prestige. I had been introduced to Fringe by other Yale shows (written by classmates of mine) that debuted there in previous years, including last year's Dust Can't Kill Me and 2012's Independents (by Marina Keegan, author of The Opposite of Loneliness, who was a senior when I was a freshman – she was a Yale idol of mine). In fact, both of those shows debuted at Theatre 80, where Under will go up!
2. What has been the best part about this cast bringing your story to life? One of the things I love most about this cast is their ability to find opportunities for comedy in moments that are otherwise heavy and dark. At times this manifests in their manner of delivering a line, but they're remarkable improvisers as well – if they sense there's a joke to be made, they'll go for it and execute it flawlessly. I've even written some of their improvised moments into the newest version of the script!
3. How did you come to work with Julian Drucker as the composer and Alexandra Cadena for direction? I sent so, so, so many e-mails. First, I went about looking for a composer to finish the score – before I found Julian, I had little more than a very simple piano-vocal score and ideas for the show's overall sound, what instruments I wanted, et cetera. I e-mailed classmates whom I knew had composed original scores, and I took their suggestions for who to contact...after many rounds of e-mails, they led me to Julian. I found Alex the same way – I e-mailed classmates who had directed or produced shows on campus, and I asked for their suggestions. As soon as I met Alex, I knew I would be comfortable putting the show in her hands.
4. Under: A New Musical, is based upon your own personal struggles with depression and bipolar disorder. What did you learn about yourself from writing this show that you might not have known before? Throughout the course of the show's development, I've grown to appreciate how far I've come over the last four years (since I wrote the very first song). I truly believe that I've become a more self-accepting person with a more informed and nuanced perspective on my own circumstances.
5. What is it like to see your life being performed on stage? To be honest, when I watch Under, I don't feel as if I'm watching my life re-unfold before my eyes. Over the course of several revisions, these characters started to diverge from the real-life personae from which they stemmed, and thus truly became figments of my creation. This effect was amplified once our cast inhabited these characters and took each of them in a unique, idiosyncratic direction.
1. What made you want to be part of Under: A New Musical? The director was in a play with me and part of my acting class, so I was initially drawn to the project through her. After finding out the show was about mental health obstacles and college life, I was on board because of how relatable the show felt.
2. What do you identify most with about "Serena"? Probably her energy and tendency to psychoanalyze, though I like to think my conclusions about people are not quite as absurd….though I’m sure she doesn’t think her conclusions are absurd either.
3. What excites you about being part of the NYC International Fringe Festival? That I get to perform in an entirely original show for its first time on a professional stage. New York is where theatre thrives and the fact that I’m getting to start performing in New York now is so exhilarating!
4. What has been the best part about working with Monica? Monica is so passionate about trying to make our audience understand the rigorous and uncomfortable details of mental health struggles, which I feel many people would try to shroud with effects or emotion. She always has an idea to help mix things up when a scene or character seems stuck, and never slows down if something does not quite fit; she just keeps working with us and the show to make it the best it can be.
5. Since this show deals with depression and bipolar disorder, can you share, if you've had any experiences with this and how you feel this show is helping you channel some of what you've gone through? Looking back at the last few years I realize I have gone through some bouts of mental and emotional struggle, but I can’t put a finger on exactly what has happened. My mom and I have always relied more on natural remedies and self-work rather than relying on outside help and prescriptions; so with this show, it is a little crazy to see how intense things can get when someone is not aware of their own illness and how restricting the supposed "care" can be. This show scared me a little at first because I realized I understood and at some points agreed with Serena during her "manic" episodes, which was just…interesting to experience.
1. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing Under: A New Musical?
Monica Hannush: I hope those audience members who identify with what they see onstage in Under feel a little less alone in their frustrations. That those who see their younger selves in these characters grant themselves a little retroactive empathy. That those who have friends or family struggling with any of the presented themes (read: the entire audience) feel a little more compelled to reach out to them.
Michaela Murphy: I hope people will think. No single idea will come from a show, and there is no way we could send only one message. As long as we get people to think about pros and cons, and the different scenarios played on stage, we will have influenced new awareness and thought processes that hopefully were not there before that could possibly influence positive change in the future.
Monica Hannush: This is a gimmick-free story that I promise you have not seen before. Julian's is a masterfully composed and memorable score (even including some EDM remixes of our songs during transitions). These are some of the most talented undergraduate actors in the country. This is a script that makes fresh and careful use of the English language, and these lyrics are more than lyrics. Our creative team is deeply invested in the story and has shown the kind of dedication and compassion that reminds me why I want to pursue a career in the arts. (It's impossible for me to give only one reason).
Michaela Murphy: To see a show that doesn’t sugar coat the reality of a situation.
3. Have you seen any changes made in Yale's psychiatric help since writing this show?
Monica Hannush: Not yet. The administration has made promises to make their existing system more visible and accessible, but no changes to the actual system have been put into place.
Michaela Murphy: Since it was written, I’m not sure. The psychiatric help is kept pretty low profile, because I feel it is still something people are not comfortable talking about on campus, so many students do not know how the system works. I personally have had one brief interaction with Yale mental health and felt quite uncomfortable so I can’t say much about the program!
Monica Hannush: I can't remember who told me this: to never cultivate a Plan B in life, because that would imply that I don't fully believe in Plan A (becoming a professional writer)... and if I want to see Plan A come to fruition, I can't afford to believe in it any less than 100%.
Michaela Murphy: My mother found this quote and told it to me during high school: Find out where you are going first, then who you are taking with you.
5. Who or what inspired you to want a career in the arts?
Monica Hannush: I've been a writer my whole life, and I've always wanted a career in the arts. For a number of years I thought I primarily wanted to pursue acting – but I always come back to writing as my main focus. The turning point – when I decided that this was what I wanted to do with my life, professionally – came during my year on medical leave from Yale. What was keeping me sane, after being ripped away from my friends and new home, was TV, movies, and theater. I thought about how important that was to me – to hear these writers telling stories, often their own stories, and the comfort I took in those stories – and I thought, I could do that for money. I could do that with my life.
Michaela Murphy: I sang before I could talk, and had my nose in a storybook since pre-k. I believe I was born to be obsessed with song and storytelling.
6. If you could have any super power which one would you choose?
Monica Hannush: I've always fantasized about having the ability to locate anything or anyone (although that could be dangerous – there are some people whose location I hope I never learn). I'd also love to be able to teleport.
Michaela Murphy: Flight. I just want to fly.
7. If you could create your own signature drink, what would you call it, and what ingredients would you put in it?
Monica Hannush: Mexican beer, salt, lime juice, chili pepper, Worcestershire sauce, chamoy sauce, Maggi sauce, tamarind juice, tomato juice. Salt, chamoy, and chili pepper on the rim. There's a drink similar to this called a Michelada – but that doesn't have tamarind! Let's call this a Mónica. I'll allow myself some narcissism in naming a drink.
Michaela Murphy: Pink Sinker: mango and peach juice, Malibu, and Blue Curacao, topped with sliced strawberries.
Monica is a playwright, screenwriter, and essayist majoring in Film Studies with a screenwriting concentration. At Yale, she is currently at work on her sophomore straight play, Mister Arkansas, under the tutelage of Donald Margulies. She wrote her first straight play, Preciosa, under the guidance of Deborah Margolin. She has written fiction with Michael Cunningham, personal and autobiographical essays with Anne Fadiman, and verse with Louise Gluck. Monica cannot wait to see Under, her first musical, make its New York debut after its world debut at Yale in April. She hopes to continue sharing Under with a larger audience.
Michaela hails from Los Angeles, is a rising Junior at Yale, and is thrilled to perform in her first show in New York at Fringe! She began her acting career early on playing voice-over roles like "Toph" in Avatar: The Last Airbender and "Chaca" in The Emperor's New School. She grew to love musicals and recently played "Amelia" in another original work, The Devil's Dictionary. Other Yale credits include "Rosie" in Cabaret, the Phantom dance captain in Rocky Horror, and "Jellaby" in Arcadia. Aside from theatre, Michaela choreographs for and performs in Yale Groove Dance Co, as well as sings soprano in Yale Out of the Blue a cappella. She recently starred in many student film projects on campus, and will be attending LAMDA's Shakespeare and his Contemporaries course this summer. She looks forward to directing Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo next semester at Yale.