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A CAST OF THOUSANDS

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU CROSS A STAGE MOTHER WITH A GROUP OF SCHIZOPHRENICS? A REALLY, REALLY BIG SHOW.

Julie Ireland storms into rehearsal, late, her long dress and long hair streaming behind her, her bare feet stomping along.

"These guys are very, very fast," she says of the comedy group she is about to direct. "Anything you teach them, they suck up like a sponge, although there's quite a range of ability. Some are very with it. Some are drooling."
Inside the small theater, no one is drooling, although the side effects of psychiatric medication--a tremor, a stagger--are obvious in some, especially those who have come to watch. Those who have come to act, however, are too nervous for tics. "Be prepared for a lot of screaming and yelling," Julie says. But as the rehearsal begins, it quickly becomes clear that if anyone is going to holler, it will be Julie herself.

"Yeah, because I will not treat them like crazy people," she explains. "I will scream if I have to. If someone comes to rehearsal all smelly, I will say, what are you doing, you stink! Because this is the real world, and bathing is not unimportant here. Before a show I will expect them to be scared. I will not lie and say everything is going to be all right."
Because at this point, it may be--or it may not.
Robert, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, has just taken the stage to lip-sync to Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles" while four women in hula skirts undulate with varying degrees of rhythm. All is well until the ukelele solo, when the onstage action dries up.

"Hey! Hey, Don Ho!" Julie yells. "What are you doing? Go on, put your arm around her. Dance! Cop a feel! See how she likes it! She doesn't like it? Okay, move on."
This segment is just three minutes of a revue that includes a half-hour of improv and seventeen more lip-sync numbers. It is the sixth in an annual series of shows staged by the Jefferson County Department of Mental Health's Community Services Program, and it's expected to be one notch better than last year's--which was better than the show the year before. The crowds--made up of parents and clients from other mental health programs--demand nothing less. What was once a Jeffco rec room has become a real theater; the county has provided a professional curtain and theatrical lights. This year's revue, set for March 23, will also be the first one open to the public, the press and anyone else eager to watch the country's only comedy group for (and by) the chronically mentally ill. "When I first came here," says Julie, whose official job title is vocational counselor, "it used to be therapy, therapy, therapy. My feeling was, these guys are sick, and you wouldn't send an epileptic to therapy, would you? They were bored to death, and I thought, well, comedy is a career, too. I got permission to do the improv class, and it took off, because some of them, when they got on stage and heard the applause, they liked themselves for the first time in their lives. "And anyway," she concludes, "I figured, I can't make them any worse than they are. They're already totally crazy."

Jim is an ensemble player. He has been offered, and refused, starring roles. But on stage, as one of three Bee Gees, or in drag for the "Mr. Sandman" number, he is shyly, unaggressively funny.

"Jim!" Julie shouts from her post at the back of the theater. "Your face looks like you're afraid. Are you?"
"Yeah," says Jim, relaxing just enough to smile.
"Well, okay then," Julie says. "Now we know."

As a supporting Bee Gee, Jim is dressed in appropriate polyester, from the long collar points of his open-to-the-waist shirt to the bells of his waffle-weave pants: Anyone would be terrified in this outfit. Back in his street clothes, though, Jim is a different man--athletic, outgoing, even "normal."

"Oh, I wasn't all that scared," he says. "Improv makes some other part of me come out."
This is not Jim's first time in the limelight. In elementary school, he was the only boy in an otherwise all-girl gymnastics troupe. He remembers having big ambitions back then. "In fifth grade I decided to invent the machine that goes faster than the speed of light," he says. "Or be an orthopedic surgeon. As it turned out, though, I've had 15 to 25 different jobs."

What interfered with Jim's career plans was not a lack of intelligence or drive, but schizophrenia. By his late teens, Jim was chronically mentally ill. Last September, at the end of a summer spent lifeguarding at the Foothills swimming pool, his condition became much, much worse.

"I had been on an anti-psychotic drug, and I stopped taking it," he recalls. "I was out of a job. Everything fell apart. I remember it was me all this happened to, but it wasn't at all sensible. I stayed inside myself. I knew I wasn't going to hurt myself or be destructive, but that's all I knew. I started thinking all kinds of things--like people are after me."
Tests since then labeled Jim a paranoid schizophrenic--and though he's still not sure he agrees with the diagnosis, he thinks lithium has done wonders. Even more effective, he says, was his transfer to Jeffco's Community Services Program from a mental hospital. CSP found him a place to live, therapy, classes in everything from money management to sex ed, and outings to ski slopes, museums and even the new airport. More important, it provided somewhere to go during the day.

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