Arts & Culture

Mental-illness success stories focus of locally written play

Wichita playwright and actor J.R. Hurst describes his new drama, "Echoes of Anguished Minds," as sort of "A Chorus Line" about mental illness.

"The six characters come together for a meeting about how to tell people about coming out of mental illness, and by the end, you know everything about them. Each of them has their own 'number' to do," says Hurst, who has been a fixture of local stages, particularly Center Theatre and Wichita Community Theatre, since his days at Wichita State University.

The hour-long, one-act drama, which will receive its world premiere this week, is based on real stories and real people from Wichita. It was commissioned after the local Breakthrough Club, a support and social group for those who have overcome mental health problems, secured a grant last spring from the Kansas Health Foundation to tell of their success stories.

The club, with members from teens to seniors, enlisted Center Theatre director John Boldenow, who then suggested Hurst as the one to organize and dramatize the material because he and his late wife, Zoe Bell, had written a similar piece for Kansas Health Ethics about end-of-life issues in 2005. Hurst has also authored a series of abbreviated "Collapsible Classics" from Shakespeare and Moliere for use in schools designed to fit within one class period.

"When the Breakthrough Club handed me transcriptions of the stories they had collected (through interviews), they specifically said they did not want the play to be an advertisement for the club. They wanted it to be about the people themselves and their experiences and thoughts," Hurst said.

"Some were only a few paragraphs long while others were very detailed and went on page after page. What surprised me was how prevalent mental illness is. One person in four will experience some form of it in their lifetime, from something physical like a chemical imbalance that causes bipolar problems or schizophrenia to something traumatic that causes depression," Hurst said. "In the popular media, people with mental illness are usually either figures to make fun of or to fear. We wanted to show that they are more like everybody else than people think."

Director Boldenow said that the play will be handled as reader's theater with the actors on chairs with scripts on music stands in front of them but that there will interaction.

"Each actor has one main character that has a through (story) line but they will also take multiple small roles to interact with each other," Boldenow said. "We are also using multimedia projections and sound effects designed by Nick Barton to help convey inner workings of minds when words just aren't enough, such as voices heard by schizophrenics."

Cast members are Karen Robu, Jacob January, Curtis Proctor, Teri Mott, Robin Allen and Randy Ervin. There will be a dinner-theater preview Wednesdayin University Congregational Church and the world premiere in Mary Jane Teall Theater Friday in Century II. A video will be made for educational purposes and a future live tour around area towns is under consideration.

"Some of the stories are very emotional, very raw, because they involve abuse," Hurst said. "But there are some surprisingly humorous touches. One man in particular has a very wry wit about him and it comes through in his story. While the stories are true, the identities have been protected."

Hurst also said he combined stories of a similar nature to create composite characters rather than specific, identifiable people. That allowed him to incorporate experiences of more than 30 people into a six-character show.

"While some of the moments deal with particular failures, the point is to show the success stories. It's about how people have learned to overcome their problems, to function with mental illness and get back into the mainstream," Hurst said. "It's an interesting story and, for me as a playwright, it's a very satisfying experience."

If you go


What: World premiere of original drama by Wichita playwright J.R. Hurst

Where and when: Preview at 8 p.m. Wednesday at University Congregational Church, 9209 E. 29th St. North; premiere at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mary Jane Teall Theater in Century II.

How much: Preview: $20 (includes catered meal; doors open at 6:30 p.m.), call 316-634-0403. Premiere: $15, available at WichitaTix at 316-219-4849 or