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Platform finds 'Brilliant' way to engage audiences with mental health

The Bakersfield Californian - 9/29/2022

Sep. 29—Platform Theatre Co. is shining a light on mental health with a special performance this weekend.

Playing Saturday and Sunday, "Every Brilliant Thing" is presented in partnership with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Kern County and at The Empty Space, where it will be performed.

The play, written by comedian Jonny Donahoe, addresses depression and the lengths we will go to for those we love. Its narrator creates a list of what's good and worth living for in the world when he, as a 6-year-old, ends up with his mother in the hospital for doing, as his dad describes it, "something stupid."

Performer Dakota Nash pitched the show to Platform and The Empty Space in 2019 after falling in love with the story. (The show was delayed due to the pandemic).

"The writing of the play is so smart and funny," he wrote in an email. "Topics that are very serious such as depression, suicide, and mental health are handled so beautifully. It's a roller coaster of emotion ... much like life."

David Alvarez, Platform's marketing director, came on board to direct the show, which is the first in the company's Elephant in the Room series, meant to hold a magnifying glass over community concerns that are often marginalized.

With a master of science in counseling for college students, Alvarez is passionate about the topics of mental health and mental illness.

"The show portrays mental illness in a realistic way versus the common hyperbolic versions that can be seen on TV and on stage," Alvarez wrote in an email. "Additionally, similar to many, I suffer from some of the mental health concerns within the show. It gave me a different perspective on the show and the narrator's experiences/story."

Although the show starts with the narrator at age 6, life continues on with highlights from every stage of life.

"It's a human talking about the human experience in ways that most, if not all, audience members will be able to connect with," Alvarez wrote. "It is not on-stage therapy; it is a collaborative story meant to engage, invoke thought, and offer audiences a way to relate to one another through the experience."

That collaboration includes definite audience engagement. Alvarez said there is a "99% chance" those in the audience will be asked to participate, whether it's reading something off the Narrator's list or standing in for someone in their life: Dad, a veterinarian, a guidance counselor, a professor or a college sweetheart.

Nash said the key to audience engagement is to "make them feel safe and special."

"The audience has to trust me and know that they will be in good hands," the actor wrote. "They are the element of the show that makes it so unique."

Bethany Lahammer, Platform's creative director, said the show offers a perfect way to provide viewers with an experience beyond merely watching a performance.

She wrote in an email, "This show exemplifies how to do audience engagement well — respectfully and charmingly without putting anyone on the spot of raising the social anxiety that can leave us as audience instead of witnesses."

Alvarez said it also allows attendees to see their connections to others.

"We all have experiences. We all have concerns. We all have tragedies. Life is a collective experience. Life is a collaborative experience.

"If you're struggling, say something; talk to someone you trust; reach out to others. The Narrator says in the piece: 'It gets better. Things aren't always brilliant. but they get better.'"

Stefani Dias can be reached at 661-395-7488. Follow her on Twitter at @realstefanidias.


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