Breakthrough Club, in Wichita, Kansas, planned a unique approach to educating communities about mental illness through a reader’s theatre presentation. The content was developed by a local playwright who used the life stories of Breakthrough Club members as his inspiration. The event was held at the Century II Mary Jane Teall Theatre, one of the largest in Wichita, Kansas. Professional actors played the roles of persons with mental illness, it was directed by a local, well-known director, and the event was videotaped for future distribution. Following the event, Breakthrough Club held a reception encouraging the public, the actors, and the people whose stories shaped the play to interact. The response to the event was very positive. Breakthrough Club members who shared their stories received encouragement and affirmation. The audience was enthusiastic and many people expressed their appreciation for the play. A relationship between the Breakthrough Club members and the theatre professionals has continued.
Assessment was derived from multiple sources. The experiences of Breakthrough Club members and staff, which repeatedly included being discounted, misunderstood, and facing discrimination, were at the heart of the need to educate the public about mental illness. Observations of how people with mental illness were depicted by the media, most often in a negative light that portrayed violence and out-of-control behavior, were identified as a primary concern to be addressed. In addition, family members of people with mental illness shared experiences that confirmed the need to help the general public learn more about mental illness in a way that would dispel untruths.
Planning for the project began with Breakthrough Club members and staff who met on a weekly basis to share life stories. The intention was to use this material to develop a reader’s theatre play. The group then invited several people prominent in local theatre activities to form an advisory council. The council met regularly and helped form a framework for the project. At the recommendation of the council, a playwright and a director were selected.
Selected life stories were recorded, then reviewed by the playwright. As he learned about mental illness and the services at Breakthrough Club, he incorporated the material into a play called "Echoes of Anguished Minds." Members and staff reviewed his play and provided additional ideas that they felt should be added or content that should be revised. The advisory council was extremely helpful in facilitating the process. The Breakthrough Club was also exceptionally fortunate to have an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer on hand with a degree in theatre and valuable stage experience. She assumed responsibility for coordinating the project and managing the numerous details that made the event possible.
The Advisory Council evaluated the process of implementing the Echoes project on an ongoing basis. They established objectives and a timeline for accomplishing the action steps of the objectives. This process was effective in producing a well-received production. Another outcome evaluation measure was the number of people who attended the two performances. The goal was to have one performance of the play, but two were held, with more than 400 people in attendance. In addition, the video of the play was distributed to more than 200 people, and excerpts of the play were used at a Breakthrough Club fundraising breakfast.
Videos of the play continue to be distributed to selected people, and Breakthrough Club meets on a weekly basis to share life stories. Members and staff share those personal reflections with visitors to Breakthrough Club as well as during community presentations. Dana Ellison, the VISTA volunteer who coordinated the project, has become a Breakthrough Club employee and works with fund development and public relations. Her theatre background is a strong asset. She coaches members to tell their stories and actively engage in community events where their participation continues to dispel myths about mental illness.
Members whose life stories were incorporated into the play expressed feeling affirmed and welcomed the appreciation of their audiences. People who attended the play told us that they found the information enlightening. Many said the presentation evoked great empathy. The performance was instrumental in opportunities to share information about Breakthrough Club services and mental illness with numerous community groups, and more than 200 copies of the play video were distributed to community supporters. Breakthrough Club has been contacted by community groups who want to use portions of the material for educational purposes and people involved with the project attended informational luncheons about Breakthrough Club that helped raise awareness about mental illness.
Breakthrough Club Website: http://www.btcwichita.com/breakthroughclub/