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(Originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune, August 21, 2000)



It could easily be one of the many theater rehearsals getting under way in the Chicago area. Actors file into a converted Victorian town home in Lincoln Park. They sip soft drinks and chatter about character motivation. The director goes over notes on blocking with his colleagues. And just before the cast plunges into a reading of a new stage adaptation, some of the performers hurry through their vocalizing and breathing exercises. Others bend their knees and shake the tension out of their hands.

As the group assembles in a wide circle, director Lawrence Grimm reminds his actors that they've only got 10 rehearsals before the show opens.

"I say that as an incentive," he urged with a broad smile masking any stress that might be churning in his gut. "It's something to get excited about rather than send fear down your spines."

Any skepticism on the cast's faces is soon transformed into anxious pleas to look at the script Grimm has fashioned from one of the performer's personal stories about attending an all-girls school in Ireland.

It's easy to forget that this merry band of players is conducting its rehearsal at a psychiatric rehabilitation center. The director, his assistant director and three professional actors have teamed up with 12 individuals receiving help from Thresholds - a 41-year-old, not-for-profit agency dedicated to creating dignified independent living opportunities for persons with mental illness.

The 12 participants, referred to as "members" (not patients), are in the process of overcoming schizophrenia, manic depression, anxiety and personality disorders.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of Thresholds Theater Arts Project, a four-month workshop that culminates in a dramatic performance based on members' stories. Grimm, the project's director for the past seven years, has returned the program to its roots of pairing professional artists with Thresholds participants.

Over the past few years, members have written and performed their own pieces. This time, they get to join forces with seasoned stage veterans. Their original production, "The Magical Menagerie of Memories," runs Aug. 21-31 at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont.

"I was really enthused by the idea of going back to combining actors with members," said Grimm, who has performed at Steppenwolf, Raven and A Red Orchid theaters. "But I was nervous, too, because members' voices had become so legitimate and prominent on their own. Once we started working together, I found that the professional actors can heighten members' voices. It's been a pure collaboration."

From May to June, the ensemble engages in improvisational games, concentrates on team building and masters basic theater skills. By July, the group submits thematic ideas in writing or verbally relates a story that Grimm adapts for the stage. This year's production is an eclectic array of tales about personal loss, fighting for one's individuality and seeking the perfect relationship.

Cheryl Almgren's "In Memory of Joe" relates how a friend encouraged her to overcome her fear of heights by riding with her on the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier. He recently passed away, but his playful spirit lives on in Almgren.

At a rehearsal earlier this month, the cast was getting into the irreverent swing of Jessica Salis' playlet, "For the Love of the Irish." Grimm asked them to try out authentic Gaelic accents. One gregarious man, Tom Miner, broke out into a florid "Irish brogue" fit for a Lucky Charms cereal commercial. The director politely asked him to tone it down a bit. "We want to try to avoid stereotypes," Grimm asserted. Miner pondered the advice, then began kicking around a less bombastic style.

Within an hour, the cast was off book (i.e. free of their scripts) and blocking an abstract sequence in which two actors mimicked in gesture a cartoon that another actor was "drawing" on an imaginary chalkboard. Cast member David Yabroff, tossed out a suggestion for a backdrop: a photo collage to reflect the nostalgic theme.

During the warm-up that afternoon, Grimm entreated the group to "get rid of all worries, concerns and thoughts that get in the way of playing." The exercises escalated into a dynamic reaching for the sky and an explosion of claps and shouts from the ensemble. An initially reserved Almgren strutted into the center of the circle, raised her arm and exclaimed, "Yes!" to the surprised cheers of the cast.

Over the course of two hours, members were visibly transformed. Yabroff admitted he has an explosive temper. "I'll just blow up," he shared. "I've lost jobs that way. Through the Theater Arts Project, I've learned to be more patient."

Mark Czyzewski, who once considered himself painfully shy, said the program "has helped me be more assertive and talk to people." He has developed lasting friendships with other participants because they share a common bond. Czyzewski, who plays guitar, wrote a humorous story and a love ballad for the upcoming show.

Another member, Cathy Lewis, said she is able to "open up a little more." She boasted, "I'm now one of the top fundraisers for the Salvation Army where I work."

The Theater Arts Project grew out of initiatives emerging from Blind Parrot, a small non-profit theater, and Thresholds. In 1988, Betsy Ingram - then executive director of Blind Parrot Productions - approached Thresholds with the original idea for the project. A few years earlier, she had volunteered on a psychiatric ward at Denver General Hospital and noticed the disproportionate number of talented artists who spent time drawing, writing or telling stories.

Ingram envisione that a theater company, with its tolerance for various forms of self-expression, might be a good place for people with severe mental illness to find a sense of community and practice social skills. She thought they, in turn, could bring inspiring life experiences to the theater company. The program has been documented over the years in a video, which Ingram hopes to screen in the fall.

"Throughout the tapes," said Ingram, artistic director of Thresholds Theater Arts Project until 1992, "members laud the project as something to look forward to on a day-to-day basis. The project was set up so that professional theater artists and Thresholds members worked together in a business-as-usual way instead of treating rehearsals like some sort of art therapy exercise."

Ken Hartfield, a member who cannot contain his enthusiasm over his many years of involvement with the project, said he would rather be performing with the Thresholds ensemble than seek Hollywood stardom.

"There's an interaction between me and the audience with live theater," explained Hartfield, who also studies art at Truman College. "On TV or film, you as an actor can't see who's out there or what their reaction is. I think theater is the most visual art. It's a way of looking at art in a three-dimensional way."

Dorothy Plaut credits her 10 years in Thresholds theater initiative with keeping her out of the hospital. She has taken improv classes at Players Workshop and belongs to a book club at Barnes and Noble.

"Acting is a healing art," said Plaut after rehearsal. "You have to release feelings. I love to make people laugh and feel emotions. They need to forget their daily lives and get lost in imaginative things."

She then rushed off to catch Donna Blue Lachman's one-woman show, "The Trouble with Peggy: Pieces of Guggenheim," at the Chicago Cultural Center.
The professional actors receive invaluable gifts in return.

"I was becoming disenchanted with theater and actors' jaded attitudes," acknowledged Brighid O'Shaughnessy. "But from the first day I got involved with Thresholds, I was so impressed with the love members have for acting. They brought back the excitement to me. They also helped me realize that theater isn't about star power and self-promotion. It's about giving people a chance to be heard."

O'Shaughnessy now feels freer to take more risks in her acting. Fellow professional actor Elizabeth Rich is more inclined to pursue teaching and drama therapy. She has tapped into skills, like discipline and focus, and she's "learned to play again."

Fred Wellisch, an established actor who is composing and performing the music for the show, is inspired by members' "devotion and the way they throw themselves into the creative process."

Assistant director Marti Szalai-Raymond has become enlivened by members' energy and curiosity. "I love to see how they create their own ensemble," she said, "and how they take that sense of ensemble with them into their daily lives." •
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