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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Psycho Killer

Bill Baker's Our Own Voice troupe creates insane theatre for everybody.

by Chris Davis

t is impossible to prepare for the shadowy sea of twisted puerile faces, the obscene verbigeration, tragic orthodonture, and grim howls of lunacy that mingle feverishly in the jumbled and disordered rooms of Bedlam. I was certainly not prepared for what lay in store when, undetected, I crept through the back door of the Lowenstein House, a mental-health-care facility located on Barksdale just south of Central.

Our Own Voice artistic director Bill Baker in the original production This Is Not an Outlet … But a Real Live Wire.
Meeting no resistance, I enter a well-lit room, neatly kept but filled with mismatched chairs arranged in a uniform manner. There are several people in the room, of varying age, shape, and ethnicity, carrying on quiet conversation, sitting silently, or rocking gently back and forth. A few mumble audibly if unintelligibly to themselves. I sit down next to a hunchbacked man of indeterminate years who pats me on the shoulder, greeting me heartily with garbled syllables from his munching mouth. This is what it looks like this is what it sounds like But how can I describe to you the way it smells? It smells very clean.

In spite of the noirish (mis)lead, the Lowenstein House, a rehabilitation center modeled after New York's Fountain House, is a far cry from Bedlam. Likewise, this is not a story that Geraldo Rivera, or any investigative journalist worth his ratings, would consider covering. It's not about abuse or squalid facilities, nor is it a sappy human-interest story about helping "the less fortunate make art." It's about the Our Own Voice theatre troupe, an unusual assemblage of artists and thespians whose endeavors have been written off for nearly a decade as "an outlet for mental-health consumers."

"Every single time we have been mentioned in the newspaper, [the article] called us an outlet [for the mentally ill]. Who would ever want to go to the theatre to see an outlet, except for maybe an electrician?" asks Bill Baker, the founder and artistic director of Our Own Voice. "Nobody ever calls Theatre Memphis an outlet for bored Germantown housewives Maybe you shouldn't print that last part."

Baker isn't insulting Theatre Memphis so much as searching for an analogy to help describe his own situation. His manners are too good to ask why people don't call the Memphis Black Rep "an outlet for darkies," or the Emerald Theatre Company "a golden opportunity for sodomites." But therein lies the point.

Baker has come to the Lowenstein House to begin the process of creating a piece of theatre that addresses the many ways in which television, film, and newspapers exploit the mentally ill by perpetuating violent and terrifying stereotypes. You know -- the stuff that sells. A number of mental-health consumers who are participants in Lowenstein's day-care program have turned out to assist him.

"Theatre is about making images -- that's what we do," Baker begins, addressing his helpmates with quiet enthusiasm. He then asks if anyone in the audience likes to watch movies, and overwhelmingly, everyone does. "Is there a particular image from a movie you have seen that stands out?" he continues. "One you could show us?"

With only the mildest coaxing, Baker has several eager volunteers working together to create still images from their favorite movies. Everyone else participates by guessing what movie is being represented.

The group quickly learns the rules of the game, and once they become comfortable and proficient at it, Baker throws out a loaded question. "Have you ever seen a mentally ill person in a movie or on television? [Can you] show us [that]?"

One of the first images created by the group uses three people. One person sits rocking back and forth, ignoring the others, while another stands nearby, left arm raised, with the right hand resting under the left armpit as if bathing. The third stands facing the bather, raising his right arm and bringing it down again repeatedly. The image is immediately recognizable to all as the bloody shower scene from Hitchcock's Psycho. The majority of the images that follow are of equally gruesome scenes from films like Sling Blade and The Silence of the Lambs, with the Three Stooges tossed in just to lighten things up.

One tableau consists of a reclining figure, presumably sleeping, while another crouches nearby with an outstretched hand. It is a scene from Nightmare on Elm Street.

"Now, Freddie Krueger and Nightmare on Elm Street -- is that mental illness, or is that supernatural horror?" Baker asks the group. All agree that Nightmare on Elm Street is not about mental illness, except for a lone dissenter claiming, "[Freddie Krueger] had to be off his rocker to do those things that he did."

In spite of this consensus, images from Friday the 13th and similar slasher films creep in, tucked between representations of Jack Nicholson, Anthony Hopkins, Dustin Hoffman, and other Oscar winners. Violence and horror have become so closely associated with media-driven images of mental illness that it is difficult for the group to separate the nomenclature from the terrifying image of Psycho's Norman Bates, certainly the prototype for Friday the 13th's demonic Jason and all his gore-spattered kin. In the mass-mediated world, it's an easy mistake to make.

In another improvisational game, Baker uses a popular form, the talk show, to create a forum for the participants to candidly discuss their disorders, and at the same time examine the effects of being labeled "mentally ill." After choosing a handful of "panelists" from the group, Baker takes a marker and writes the names of their specific illnesses on cards, which the participants then hold out for everyone to see. He pops the top back on his marker and begins to wield it like a microphone.

To a big round of applause Baker swaggers about, transformed into a smarmy Springer-esque host. "Today on our show," he announces, "we have a group of mental- health consumers. What is mental illness? Is it contagious? Can I catch it?" The entire group responds "No." A woman in a faded red dress says immediately, and with confidence bordering on condescension, "It's a malfunction of the brain."

"Well, what do people think when they see you coming?" Baker asks the group cautiously, still pretending he is afraid of becoming infected with a mental illness. The woman in red responds with a belly-laugh, "Here comes that nut!"

Baker introduces his "guests" both by name and by illness: Schizophrenia, Bi-polar Disorder, and Depression, to name a few. Though it is not a true diagnosis, one woman in the crowd insists that she is "criminally insane." Baker then asks the "panelists" to explain to "the studio audience" what it is like to live with their peculiar maladies. The audience, in turn, questions the panelists, providing entertainment and frenetic commentary Jenny Jones-style.

Everyone participating accepts absolutely and without question that Baker's marker is now a microphone. They wait for it to be offered to them, and use it appropriately. Several members of "the studio audience" want to share their own experiences and offer words of inspiration. The "panelists" singled out, with their labels prominently displayed, are somehow perceived by the group as being needier than the group as a whole, requiring comfort and encouragement. Their bleak stories range from unfortunate to devastating: the loss of friends and family, suicide (attempts and haunting ideation), psychosis, fear, and depression -- but there is always a hopeful message to accompany the gloom.

Raising a finger in the air then plunging it down as if to say, "you go sister!" one woman in the "audience" asks, "You know how sometimes, when you are walking down the street and you start hearing your voices talking to you? So you start talking back right? Why is it people have to come up to you all the time and ask, 'Who are you talking to?' because you sure ain't talking to them."

"You just have to trust Jesus!" another "audience member" advises, joyously tossing her arms in the air. The action conjures up images of charismatic Christians, a curious exception in our culture where speaking in tongues, a state similar in appearance to psychosis, is more than just socially acceptable. For those who believe, it is a most desirable condition.

"I was very surprised at how comfortable [the consumers] were discussing their illnesses. A lot of the people who come to us are very reserved. ... I'd never heard some of them talk that openly before," says June Winston, executive director of the Lowenstein House, after watching the "talk show" session. By recreating a popular media format, Baker facilitates a lively dialogue on a topic that the consumers often, and for obvious reasons, prefer not to discuss. Nobody wants to be greeted with, "Here comes that nut."

Over the course of several weeks, Baker conducts improvisational workshops at the Lowenstein House and at Our House Drop-In Center, a facility in the Sherwood Forest subdivision. During this time he develops a script with co-authors Caldwell and Randy, both of whom are mental-health-care consumers and longtime contributors to Our Own Voice. Baker is planning to call the script simply This Is Not an Outlet, but at Caldwell's suggestion he amends the title to This Is Not an Outlet But a Real Live Wire. Caldwell is thoughtful, articulate, and soft-spoken. Randy, however, is the "live wire."

Gregarious and motor-mouthed, Randy speaks in a circuitous stream of consciousness, sometimes lyrical, sometimes impenetrable and cluttered with words that don't always seem to fit. He likes to laugh, and his sense of humor strikes unexpectedly.

"So do you think you are going to keep on wearing those bikini bathing suits?" he asks, playing out the role of a newscaster interviewing Margaret Thatcher. He writes much as he speaks, with dialogue dense and difficult but emotionally direct. His prose is challenging, and far more interesting than anything one is likely to stumble across at your run-of-the-mill poetry slam.

In one scene Randy writes, "Paper Eludes Door Knob: When paper put forward, she eludes me towards closing the door knob. She's loud and not sobs none whatsoever. Writes me self letter towards her. Eludes the door knob said she loves me, needed us forever. She says the oven wants repair so purchase made haste to buy microwave oven and leans over on me kisses me. I focus in on her next move, leads the food behind and hugs me. Eludes the door knob said she loves me needed us forever. We make no more haste, calls me at work and tells me she wants to meet me over a huge meal because she changes her mind. Forward she looks when I get home, eludes me toward closing the door drops of rain fell. Never slammed again."

"It's about relationship. The relationship between a man and a woman," Randy later attempts to explain -- as if there were any need to do so.

Enumerating the reasons why his group is not an outlet, Baker can't help but mention some theatrical influences. "I used to think that [German playwright Bertolt] Brecht was the answer, until I discovered [Augusto] Boal. By engaging the audience [in the dialogue], Boal took theatre to that next level."

Augusto Boal believed theatre could be a tool for revolution. Twice exiled, it appears that the Brazilian writer and theorist was onto something. He eliminated any theatrical device which might lead to catharsis (feeling purged and forgiven is antithetical to social change), and using clowns as moderators between audience and actors, he invited everyone to become involved in the action. Baker too fashions clowns to engage the audience.

"[Rather than try to make the consumers seem more normal] we try to create counter-stereotypes, stereotypes of people who are supposed to be normal to question what is normal. There were people who got mad at us, especially in the early days, because we weren't doing plays that made the consumers seem more 'normal.' We were too 'crazy' for them."

In This Is Not An Outlet ... the counter-stereotypes include a compulsive megalomaniac, a media magnate, an empty-brained "yes" man, and an obsessive, image-conscious talk-show host.

The script, finished only two weeks before the play's June 11th opening, is (quite literally) a combination of Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz. It features the character John Wangdoodle Doe, a diagnosed schizophrenic who operates a theatre troupe for people with mental illnesses. The media become interested in John's theatricals, and due to a misunderstanding, he bites the hand of a reporter sent to interview him. The biting incident, caught on film, is blown entirely out of proportion and, overnight, John Wangdoodle Doe is metamorphosed into a grim celebrity, a Hannibal Lecter-ish figure who dines on human flesh every time he goes off his medication. It's a broad postmodern farce, combining the frantic pop-culture babble of improvisational comedy and a Greek chorus raining down platitudes in the shape of rhymed couplets. Though greatly altered, it is very much a product of the preceding improvisations.

After the audition process is over, Baker becomes distressed that only four members of his large cast are mental-health consumers. He would like for there to be more, but he's been doing this for a long time and there are always problems with transportation, not to mention lingering fears among consumers and their families of being singled out by the public as someone with a mental illness. As a full-time social worker funding Our Own Voice largely from his own wallet, Baker knows he can't do everything, and with a resigned sigh he says, "At least we have four: Dorothy, the Tin-Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, off to see the Wizard."

The cast is a rag-tag group of consumers, kids, social workers, and members of the local performance community, but the rehearsals are much the same as rehearsals going on at any other theatre in town. Through repetition the actors discover where they should stand, when they should move, and how to deliver their lines. Working out the kinks in a scene he has written, Randy holds up his hands saying, "I just want to keep, you know, to get my naturalism right."

"I don't think you need to worry about naturalism," Baker assures him, and indeed, naturalism has little place in an Our Own Voice production.

Baker's theatre is all-out-crazy, by commercial standards anyway, though quixotic is perhaps the more appropriate term, and one that can only be applied to the process. The product cannot be so easily stuffed and mounted. Performance and mental illness have a rich mutual history. We have at times cast the mentally ill as prophets and shamans, wandering "fools" empowered by God to speak their minds, and we have also made them prisoners, caged because of their abnormalities, but visited by "normals" believing that deep truths lay ensconced in the riddle-like speeches of "madmen."

In one notable instance, the Marquis de Sade, while himself an inmate of Charenton Asylum outside Paris, staged plays featuring his fellow inmates. The events became popular among the beau monde, no doubt lured by the prospect of feeling superior. Given de Sade's reputation, it is unlikely that the pretty people got anything like what they expected.

Though notions of madness are now replaced by the concept of illness, Baker's work is (pardon) a nut fallen not far from the tree of "crazy" tradition. If the process is therapeutic for the consumers, the therapy is a happy byproduct; Baker's aim is to generate theatre told from a different perspective. If it is an outlet for the mentally ill, it is also an opportunity for us as "normals," to see ourselves represented by a group of people whom society tends to keep at arm's length, if not completely out of sight.

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