The Art of Being Human: opening night with the Second Step Players
“I sometimes think that the act of bringing food is one of the basic roots of all relationships.” -- H.H. The Dalai Lama
Two hours before curtain time at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, the cast and crew of The Second Step Players gather together to share a meal. The food and preparation are donated by local businesses and volunteers, and doled out by two well-being coordinators who serve up honey-roasted chicken, green beans with almonds, and spicy tofu. Well-being is as important a post as lighting, sound, or performing within this theatre company.
This gathering of performers, crew, and volunteers is at the core of the Second Step Players’ mission, to support individuals with mental illnesses through creative endeavors. Approximately 80% of the troupe members have experienced some form of psychiatric disorder. Feeding the company members before the evening’s events is just one way that this extraordinary enterprise differs from the traditional community theater.
“It’s like working with a second family,” says video coordinator Bill Hamell. This is his fourth production over the past two years volunteering with The Players and he is busy poking his hand-held video camera around nooks and corners, gathering candid footage of company members getting ready for the show. “We make a keepsake DVD that everyone in the show gets, and I’m seeing that it gets recorded.”
By 7:30 on opening night an audience of just over one hundred people is in the house to see this year’s show titled SPAM (Seriously Psychotic Absolutely Mental), the 19th annual outing for the troupe in this venue. Becca Atkins, the director of the troupe, strides center stage in a dressed-down tuxedo and greets the audience.
“Tonight during the warm-up with the actors,” Atkins tells the audience, “I asked ‘besides your illness, what are you?’” She explains that often the person is so thoroughly equated with their illness that other aspects of their identity can be lost. “Three answers that I got tonight were a lawyer, a cook, and a part time radio disc jockey, and tomorrow night I’ll tell three more.”
The first half of the show is filled with the troupe’s signature brand of original slapstick comedy, rife with flying props, gag humor, and double takes about the stigma associated with mental illnesses. The second half is a departure from the normal lunacy of sketches. It is an adaptation of The Common Itch a play with music by Darin Keech of the Band of Humans.
“I always say we don’t do drama with Second Step because we have enough drama in our lives,” Atkins explains, “but this was just too beautiful not to do.”
“It was an honor for them to do my piece,” says the soft-spoken Keech. “There are connections and similarities to the Band of Humans philosophy and perspectives on healing and being a human being, and the work that The Second Step Players do.”
The Common Itch was originally a full-length play that featured live music by The Band of Humans, a folk-rock group created by Keech, their lead singer and guitarist. Originally constructed as a meditation on the search for life’s meaning, the play had to be reworked by Atkins and The Players to better address the philosophy of the theater group and to cut its length to fit the presentation format.
“We wanted to combine it as a dual diagnosis,” says SJ Williams, the Executive Director of Artreach, the parent agency of The Second Players, as well as an actor in the play. “Recovery from mental illness as well as recovery from addiction. We needed to write that in.”
The play centers on Jude, played by Dan Howarth, a young man who has set out on the road with little more than his backpack and guitar. He meets Prudence, played by Williams, a junky going through the pains of withdrawal. Together they form an uneasy alliance and set out on a cross-country trek to Montana, home of the fabled Poets’ Lounge.
“This year Becca challenged me with this part,” says Howarth about playing Jude. He has been acting for several years with groups in Old Lyme, and this is his second show with The Players. “It’s meaningful. It’s entertaining but it’s also for a cause that I believe in.” Howarth became involved with The Players after meeting Atkins in an acting class. “I told her, ‘well, I’m bipolar’ so I think I fit in,” he chuckles.
“It was almost like watching someone else’s play,” says Keech after the performance. “I sat back and enjoyed it. I cried when the conclusion hit home.”
The play ends with a ballad performed by Prudence, the recovering addict, at The Poets’ Lounge:
We can pull it together
Let’s try to make it better
Please believe in me
I believe in you.
As the music continues the rest of the theater company moves onto the stage throughout the applause. Even the stage crew and other volunteers, including the well-being coordinators, share the final bow in the lights, linking hands with the other company members.
“Everybody here is stepping out of their shell in front of an audience of over a hundred people,” says Howarth. “I get to share this with people who know me and know the road that I’ve traveled. I get to show them this.”
For more information about Second Step Players events or opportunities contact Becca Atkins at 860-887-1896. Band of Humans will be performing as part of Boats, Books and Brushes in London, CT this September.