Of Venn Diagrams, Set theory, Theatre, Stand Up, Blues, Fear, And Depression…or, My Journey

I’ve always had a problem with Venn Diagrams. Wait, come back, I promise it’ll all make sense in just a little bit. Seriously, I have a plan. Stick around, please…

See, way back in school, I was kind of a math prodigy, even though I hate that word. In a working class neighborhood that didn’t exactly win me any friends, but I didn’t really care. I loved set theory, you know, putting things into categories and looking for connections. My stuffed animals were inventoried and kept in one box, army men in another, and my comic book collection was alphabetical by title and numerical within the set of titles.

If you asked me for Hawkman Number 98, I could pinpoint its place within a couple of seconds. If anyone else picked it out, well, I would have to make sure all the comics were put back correctly. It wasn’t that I was neat or anything; I was, and continue to be, an agent of chaos, but I do know my systems.

One portion of set theory involves the use of Venn Diagrams. You remember those circles that overlapped here and there and pointed out where blue eyed people intersected with red headed people and you got a visual demonstration of how many people belonged to both sets.

My problem with Venn Diagrams is that while they are being taught, teachers could only visualize a finite number of intersections, maybe two or three, when in fact they should contain the possibility of an infinite number of sets that all intersect at various points within the grand set. Or don’t intersect at all, that in itself is telling.

Hang on, I’m getting to the point. Calm down will ya?

This weekend, most of my personal sets all intersected at one point, sort of the non-astronomical equivalent of all the planets lining up in a perfect row. I spent the better part of the last couple of days reading an amazing new book, BLUES THERAPY, that was co-written by my friend, psychologist Anita Schlank, PhD. Dr. Schlank is fascinated by the sheer number of blues musicians who deal with mental illness on a daily basis.

The blues is an important part of my life. I’ve listened to it for years, and for the last dozen years or so, have even co-hosted Time For The Blues on WCVE-Music on Saturday nights. Music has been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember despite the fact that I can’t play much of anything.

Jazz or classical music surrounds me when I write; Americana, blues, or bluegrass when I’m working on other projects and Celtic music when I meditate. Believe me, if you can reach Nirvana by saying “OM” while listening to the bagpipes of the Royal Scots Guard, you can concentrate on just about anything.

BLUES THERAPY opened my eyes to so much. So many of these artists, several of whom I call my friend, are so open about the struggles they face. Whether it’s bipolar conditions, major depressive disorder, or some other mental condition, these artists deal with their condition and still continue to make good art.

They write songs, travel the world performing them, often staying away from home for months at a time. Life on the road is hours of work driving from place to place, setting up, playing for 90 minutes or two hours then staying around to talk to audience members who queue up to buy your CDs and get a moment of your time, then packing it all up, eating whatever you can, checking in to a hotel, getting a few hours of sleep, rinse and repeat.

I’m not a musician, but I was a stand up comedian for many years, and that was my life for much of it. Just add the extra stress of a family that included two small children and a day job that required my attention eight a.m. to five p.m.

If you substituted the word “comedian” for “musician,” the book would have described most of my friends from those days. And while it pains me to say it, I would have been one of those with diagnosed mental illness.

I have major depressive disorder, a prolonged sense of depression often coupled with anxiety that used to be known as clinical depression. I’m aware of being like this since I was in elementary school and it became particularly pronounced about the time I turned 15. Early intervention would have been a big help, but in my family, one simply did not discuss personal issues outside of family. And we damn sure never saw any kind of a therapist. Few people suspected anything was wrong, as I always walked around with a practiced smile stuck on my face. As far as most people could tell, I was the happy go lucky kid who once had been good in math and now hung out in the theatre department.

Not that I didn’t love theatre, I found a welcoming and wonderful group of people who became my family of choice. A few people from those days remain my good friends and two of them are still heavily involved in the world of theatre. But I knew almost from the beginning that I didn’t have the talent to be a major actor. Sure, I could play the funny friend, or even the hulking bad guy, but the romantic lead? Forget it.

As a critic I was treated to many years of watching great theatre and offering up opinions on what I saw. This weekend, I caught a wonderful show at HATTheatre, EVERY BRILLIANT THING. It’s an almost one-person show – one actor, Chris Hester, and a few audience members are pulled up to play some secondary characters in scenes that are part scripted and part improvisation.

It’s a short show, maybe a little over an hour, and at this Sunday matinee that I caught, the place was packed. Hester did something that few actors have ever done to me as an audience member – he made me believe. I’m not saying he acted well, he almost always does, but to seamlessly operate the character that was essentially himself and to be completely truthful to the process, is a rare and precious thing.

The play deals with some pretty heavy subjects including isolation, depression, and suicide. Despite the psychic toll that those subjects spark, the play is often funny and ultimately uplifting. Hester battles his way through all of it and finds ways to be totally honest in his interpretation of the script.

My wife and I were on the front row, in incredibly comfortable chairs and were made welcome by Artistic Director Vickie Scallion and even Hester himself, who spent a half hour prior to curtain talking to every audience member and handing out cards that needed to be said when the number attached to the card was mentioned in the play.

I have rarely been so affected by any performance, and within the intimate confines of HATTheatre, it was a real pleasure to see.

Between BLUES THERAPY and EVERY BRILLIANT THING, the universe seemed to want me to continue to have the courage to put my own battles out there. No one ever wins a war alone, we all need an army. My army includes people from many of my Venn Diagrams: theatre, music, radio colleagues, writers, directors, magicians, artists, blues supporters, comedians, therapists, family members who don’t have to put their heads in the sand and pretend there’s nothing there, and maybe one or two mathematicians who share my passion for numbers.

And if you find yourself fighting against your own demons, I would be honored to be a part of your army. You are not alone, we are not alone. The theatre is a warm and welcoming place and if this is where our Venn Diagrams intersect, I am glad you’re here. Don’t be a stranger.

If you would be interested in obtaining your copy of BLUES THERAPY, be sure to visit www.bluestherapybook.com

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