As a PhD student at Stanford University in 2017, Zachary Burton was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After hearing the news, he immediately struggled with overcoming his own preconceived notions about the condition, and what living with it would mean.
“It was a huge reckoning for numerous reasons,” he tells Fast Company. “Part of it was simply just that label—like, wow, I’m like this crazy person now. This can’t be true.”
To help reduce the stigma around mental illness for himself and others, Burton turned to live theater. He and fellow Stanford alumnus Elisa Hofmeister created a show called The Manic Monologues, a series of true-life stories from people struggling with mental health issues. The work was first performed in Stanford in 2019 and has since grabbed the attention of health experts, including the folks at Princeton University Health Services. Princeton’s McCarter Theatre—known for debuting daring works from the likes of Tarell Alvin McCarey and Christopher Durang—planned to do a staged reading back in March of last year, but of course the coronavirus pandemic had other plans.
Now, The Manic Monologues is finally making its Princeton debut as a free “virtual experience,” a collaboration with Princeton Health Services, 24 Hour Plays, and a project called Innovations in Socially Distant Performance.
Starting Thursday, viewers can watch the 21 monologues performed by professional actors at their own leisure, in multimedia renderings conceived and directed by theater and opera director Elena Araoz. The production is a partnership with One Mind, a nonprofit that focuses on brain research. Dalton Delan, head of its media division, said in a statement that deconstructing the show’s narrative for a nonlinear virtual space is “new, needed, and will help reduce the stigma of mental illness while reinventing drama in a singularly challenging time.”
The show’s title is a riff on The Vagina Monologues, which began as a one-person show meant to break down taboos around female sexuality and body image. What sets The Manic Monologues apart is the hands-on input from healthcare experts, which Burton says was core to the idea of showing an honest and complete portrayal of mental illness, one that incorporates the diverse range of experiences people have.
“We were very intentional about involving psychologists and psychiatrists and getting buy-in and basically approval,” he says. “Healthcare should obviously be involved in any conversation around mental health.”