A Piece of Their Minds; Tim Brown explores the dark side of the brain in "An Exquisite Dream of Fire,' a theater work that tries to dissect mental illness through memoirs and letters.


Tim Brown is a natural inquirer, someone who uses his theatrical training as a springboard for exploring the infinite variations of human nature.

A graduate student in theater at Towson University, Brown, 31, doesn't rely on his own observations for drawing conclusions about those variations. His approach has always been to learn from the experience and views of others.

When Brown took a day job at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill after graduating from Marquette University, he not only learned the intricacies of advocacy work, he absorbed the stories and struggles of those who lived with brain disorders.

As he left to pursue his degree two years ago, an Alliance board member, Jill Bolte Taylor, stopped Brown and said, "You know what I want to see [on stage]? Some small sense of what it's like to live with a brain disorder."

Brown took Taylor's request to heart. Tonight, he and Funkopolis, a Baltimore-based performance ensemble, present the premiere of "An Exquisite Dream of Fire," a theater piece that explores the interior landscape of mental illness.

It is second nature for Brown, who most recently directed "Wings" at Axis Theatre, to "want to crawl into somebody else's body" and look around. The notion acquired new resonance when he considered crawling into the mind of someone with a brain disorder, be it schizophrenia, major depression, bi-polar, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorder. If you cut your hand, Brown explains, your brain tells you to put on a Band-Aid. But, if it is the brain itself that is cut, "what does that tell me?"

By attempting to find an answer to something that is, to some extent, unknowable -- the workings of the body's most mysterious organ -- Brown set upon a nearly impossible task. "Fire," as it combs the minds of those with brain disorders, is, in effect, a search for the answer. An answer that, in the end, is not entirely available.

Trying to solve ultimately unsolvable problems is the kind of exercise that Brown seems to relish as a galvanizing force. Kerry Flynn, a former colleague of hiswho contributed to "Fire" early on, says the very process of explaining brain disorders to an audience is risky. "It's hard, because the more accessible it is, the less powerful it becomes." But, says Flynn, who lives with major depression, "the more truthful to our experience or our feelings we tried to be, the more we feared it would seem gimmicky in its abstraction. It was hard to find a balance."

Brown, however, isn't one to let such risks stop him. "Tim is a very passionate, expressive person and you see his fingerprints all over [the play]," Flynn says.

Don't call him a playwright, but a "text constructor" who works in the avant-garde vein of collaborative play making, and looks to communities -- united by geography or sensibility -- for "source material." Brown assembled "Fire" from hundreds of accounts of those intimate with the ravages mental illness can bring to individuals and their families.

Searching for universal themes and experiences, Brown drew, for example, from stories such as one sent from a teacher misdiagnosed with depression who, with a strong dose of Prozac, experienced hallucinations: "I believed that I was all powerful and had to hurriedly fix the problems of the world."

A different doctor determined she had bi-polar disorder and prescribed lithium. The improvement was immediate. Today, this person writes of being "not euphoric but not despondent -- just fine."

Another correspondent wrote exultantly: "Only recently, with good medications and (sometimes) hospitalizations, I have told my wonderful psychiatrist my secret: I really don't want to die!!"

Then there was the letter from a woman whose daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia, whose thoughts appear practically verbatim in "Fire": "I love the girl that is, as well as the girl that was, more than I can say."


Other contributions are reflected in the script as salient phrases and fragments. And there are stories that inform the piece in more oblique, but equally critical, ways, says Brown, who also read deeply in the depression memoir genre, including William Styron's "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness." The show's title is taken from the work of Virginia Woolf, whose passionate musings on madness are one of several narrative lines that lead spectators through the play.

"Fire" is a raw, non-linear, abstract piece that will challenge audiences with its content and form. An early scene in which a cast member conveys what it is like to have obsessive-compulsive disorder is particularly potent and disturbing. Brown first thought the piece "would be a lot more hopeful. In my heart, it's what I wanted it to be." But after poring through untold accounts, he realized, "This can't be a rosy picture."

What he found "wasn't necessarily a universal theme of hope, but it wasn't a universal them of despair, either. It was the whole spectrum."

When he was building "Fire," Brown wanted those who saw it to feel empowered by the representation of mental illness on stage; not just the depths but the redemptive pattern of despair, recovery and wellness that can occur as well.

A chance to explain

For Cassandra Penny, an administrative assistant at the Alliance's Baltimore chapter, just the act of writing about her mother's mental illness for Brown was therapeutic, enabling her to openly acknowledge her own battle with major depression. In a letter, at first anonymous, Penny wrote: "All of those years as a little one living with Mom's oddities, I think I always knew that there was something different about our house. Other children's moms didn't go to the hospital all of the time, and stay for such a long time, and although I knew that all was not well, I just accepted it as a part of life."

In the letter, Penny addresses her own illness and its genetic cause: "Major Depression! Dammit, she did pass a part of it along, didn't she? ... Shhh, please don't dare let my employer know. I work in mental health, for Pete's sake. Mommy had many doctors. Daddy needed some badly. Me? Well. I would just like to hose down the fire and Awaken."

In an era in which the most intimate secrets get aired in public, Penny, 50, still found it difficult to put her name on these memories. There is still a lot to lose for those like Penny, once hospitalized for major depression in the very hospital where she worked. When she returned to work, Penny's colleagues stepped lightly: "Hi, are you feeling better?" they asked in patronizing whispers.

Recovered, she had her job back, but Penny couldn't cope with work responsibilities while fine-tuning a drug regimen, not to mention "the stigma of people knowing it had taken place, and [not believing] that you are capable of getting well and continuing life as usual." Eventually, Penny resigned to avoid the pressure.

Now, she feels relieved and transformed by her loss of anonymity.

Desire to shed some light

Brown didn't want to just preach to the choir; he also wanted to demystify mental illness for those who may not understand its symptoms, its biology, its variability. He wanted those who perhaps cringe when they see a man muttering to himself in the street, or a co-worker exhibiting strange behavior, that mental illnesses are, in the words of one brain disorder authority, "part of the varied fabric of life." To that end, each performance will be followed by a "talk back" that will allow the audience to question Brown about the play's content.

As "Fire" came together, Brown had not yet touched base with the mental health community in Baltimore, something he had hoped to do. Serendipitously, in June, he bumped into Kathryn S. Farinholt, executive director of the Alliance's Baltimore chapter, at the group's annual convention in Chicago. When Brown told her what he was working on, Farinholt immediately embraced the idea of incorporating local Alliance members into the playwriting process.

A last-minute mailing of 1,500 requests yielded a new crop of stories that lent "Fire" additional context and texture. Some of those who wrote "will hear their words on stage," Brown says. He hopes to repeat the same process as the show travels across the country before arriving in San Diego next June to perform at the Alliance's annual convention.

As he solicits stories, Brown will likely give comfort to those who respond. The experience, says Flynn, of "trying to translate this really obscure thing that happens in my mind, and having others try to do the same for me, is comforting. Even if the translation ... is not completely successful, what's comforting is that somebody wants to understand."

Brown is well aware that he and his production are the stewards of precious cargo: intensely personal stories from people whose lives have been extremely difficult and often tragic. "I pray that we do it justice," he says.

'An Exquisite Dream of Fire'

What: Co-produced by Funkopolis, Towson University and the Baltimore chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 10

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

Tickets: $14 general admission, $8 students and senior citizens

Note: The run coincides with Mental Health Awareness Week in early October; Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Arts Museum, will speak on Oct. 7.

Call: 410-752-8558.

Pub Date: 9/23/99

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