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Playhouse Hopes Community Conversation About Mental Health Continues

Terry Little
Courtesy of Playhouse In The Park
"Next To Normal" performed at Playhouse In The Park in Murray, Ky.

A local theater is hopeful a community conversation about mental illness will continue now that their performance of a show exploring that topic has closed.

Playhouse in the Park in Murray recently staged the rock musical "Next To Normal." The Tony Award-winning work centers around family members struggling with depression, anxiety, drug abuse, bipolar disorder and suicide.

Playhouse Executive Director Lisa Cope says she wanted to start a conversation. "And I think it has. If nothing else, people are willing to talk... to reach out to a friend or to reach out to a family member, even reaching out to us just to say 'I can do it now. I can tell my story.'"

Cope said the community feedback has been "tremendous." One of the issues touched on in the musical involves the loss of a child. "We had no idea that people had gone through that and lived that," Cope said. "Now they're saying: 'I want to tell you my story, I want to tell you what happened to me and why this was really healing for me to see this and now I do want to talk about it.'"

Cope said it's important to use the medium of theatre to be able to touch on topics that are uncomfortable but need to be heard. "It's stirred a lot of emotions and I think in a really positive, good way," she said.

Dr. Angie Trzepacz is the Director of the University Counseling Center at Murray State. She described "Next To Normal" as intense and realistic. "Everybody's mental illness is different and everybody's journey through it is different, but especially the way it affected the family was really accurate," she said, in her experience with clients and their families.

She said conversations about mental health and mental illness are better than not talking about it and people being afraid to go to therapy or to acknowledge their problems and get help out of fear of being ashamed or embarrassed.

Trzepacz said arts play an important role in not only starting a conversation but can also serve as a form of therapy. "There's lots of ways arts can be involved," she said.

Credit Matt Markgraf / WKMS
More than half of the seats in Playhouse In The Park were filled for a late Saturday evening panel discussion on mental health, following the performance of "Next To Normal."

More than 60 people stayed after the last performance for a panel discussion with local mental health professionals. Cast members and community members shared personal experiences. Panelists acknowledged the complexity of mental health and the importance of science-based treatment. A representative of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Murray chapter said the group consists of family members and friends of people who suffer from severe brain disorders and said it can be therapeutic talking with others who have "walked in your shoes."

Constance Alexander led the panel. She also said she hopes the public discussion can continue via the community theatre, public library and other venues.

Playhouse has information about area counseling centers and other resources in their lobby. For people who didn't get to see the show, Cope recommends people buy the script or listen to the soundtrack.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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