When the opportunity arose for McDaniel senior Emily Wendler to direct her own play, she instantly knew thematically what she wanted to say but didn't know how to broach the topic.
Wendler, of Edgemere, said she decided to merge her social work and theater degrees by putting together an awareness piece that tackled issues of mental health, bullying and suicide. This piece eventually took the form of the show "Speak of Hope," running Saturday at the McDaniel understage.
"When I was first putting this idea together, I was looking initially at how we as humans process trauma, and this was right around the time Robins Williams passed away," Wendler said. "I kept coming back to this idea of suicide and why it's so prevalent today."
The show focuses on the ways in which social media and bullying contribute to suicide, while analyzing the ways in which mental health issues are often downplayed in the popular conscious.
Wendler described the process of putting the show together as devised theater. The nine-person cast collaborated on putting the play together, using rehearsals and improvisations to sketch out the bones of the script.
"I think of it as one giant improv that gets turned into a story," Wendler said. "You do sometimes hit a roadblock where you know you want to talk about these things but have to figure out how to explore them further. We really wanted the audience to come away learning something, so we had to look if the idea translated to the stage."
Jennifer Shillingburg, a sophomore from Oakland who plays a number of roles in the show, said she's had experience working in this style but never for anything of this scale.
"It was tough because you have to sustain ideas for a month and a half. You can't just let them drop," Shillingburg said. "There are some ideas that when you introduce them, you're like 'Yes!' but then in a couple of weeks later, you're like 'Nope, they're gone.'"
The show features a number of sketches and storylines surrounding the major story arc of a high school student who commits suicide after being bullied. After the student's death, those who bullied him begin to advocate suicide prevention before continuing their same actions. The show depicts a fantastical version of events, with actors portraying the Grim Reaper and others' internal monologues.
Alex Tolle, a freshman from Woodstock, said she appreciated the opportunity to take on a number of roles, and the whole experience was different than anything she's been a part of before.
"Everybody had so many good ideas that every week, we'd bring something new to the table, and we'd build from that," Tolle said. "It's definitely a big issue in today's society. There are people I knew who battled depression from cyberbullying. It's definitely an issue that people don't always talk about."
Wendler said nearly every cast member of the show has been affected by suicide and mental health issues, and the entire production is dedicated to a loved one she lost to suicide in November.
"It's got personal meaning for me and a lot of cast members. It's not just a matter of wanting to advocate for the sake of advocating," Wendler said. "If someone had a physical illness, you'd do everything in your power to get them better, but we don't look at it in the same way. In harsh terms, we don't take mental health as seriously."
During the bullying scenes in the show, Facebook comments, tweets and text messages inspired by real-life bullying incidents will be projected above the characters' heads. Wendler said the social media component of bullying has become a new concern.
"I grew up in a time when MySpace was taking off. I didn't have a Facebook until I was a junior in high school, and to me it seemed like your only concern was that you're not on someone's Top 8 list on MySpace," Wendler said. "We did use it the way kids do now with the constant brutal bullying and harassment. You can't leave school to get away from bullies anymore."
Despite the dark subject matter, Wendler said the play ends with a message of hope, with a slam poetry-inspired song based on real stories of people who turned away from suicide and the moments their lives got better.
"Not every day is going to be easy," Wendler said. "But you have to be able to reach out to someone. You don't have to go it alone. We need to support each other."
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If you go
What: "Speak of Hope"
When: 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 25
Where: Understage, WMC Alumni Hall, McDaniel College, 2 College Hill, Westminster
Cost: Free, but donations will be accepted for The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and The Trevor Project
For more information: Visit mcdaniel.edu or call 410-848-7000.