A CAST OF THOUSANDS
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.
"You don't know how good that is," Jim says. "I think I'm going to be able to work again. I'm in the process of moving out of my mom's house to a halfway house. But most of my time I spend here. Everybody helps me out, even the people you would call very low-functioning. Actually, I would put myself about on top as far as that goes."
Near the bottom, perhaps, would be the young man with the greenish-white skin who has fallen asleep in a corner on a pile of exercise mats. Or the older man who keeps moving from seat to seat, unable to concentrate on Gerianne, who is on stage doing an enthusiastic, big-busted Dolly Parton.
"Hey, chief," he keeps whispering to anyone within earshot, "you got fifty cents for me?"
"No, and you shouldn't be bummin' off of people either," says another CSP client.
"Hey chief, hey chief--"
"Would you park it?" Julie says. "Go in or out, you decide. And what do I want from you, audience? Yes. Applause."
The dozen people in the audience clap politely as Corey begins his John Lennon impression. The four actors who make up his ensemble play toy instruments and wear outfits more reminiscent of a Pizza Hut staff than the Plastic Ono Band. But Lucy is appropriately mysterious as Yoko, and Corey is almost eerily Lennonesque. He is tall and lanky, and his sunglasses are historically correct. Moreover, he is being Lennon rather than acting Lennon, which may be why he also was cast as the lead Bee Gee and the Dan Aykroyd half of the Blues Brothers. Corey himself has no ready explanation for his theatrical streak.
"I guess I just love rock and roll," he says. "I could never be an actor or a musician--they end up being waiters, and waiters don't make it."
And just contemplating that makes Corey a little nervous. "Hey, I've been okay," he hastens to add. "I was driving a truck, I made good money. I had my own apartment, friends. I even had cable."
This was something to write home about, because Corey, who is now 41, had his first nervous breakdown at 20. "Maybe because I was in a bad car accident with pretty bad injuries," he says. "Or it could have been drugs, they're a convenient excuse." Spurned by a girl and out of work, Corey had the sensation of "everything just coming down on me," he remembers. "Everything turned rotten, so I made a world of my own and lived there."
Though he can see that this was quite an intellectual challenge, Corey has no good memories of that little world. "It wasn't at all cool," he recalls. "It was dangerous, actually. I was eyein' someone down with a rifle at one point. There were no bullets in it, but still."
That began two decades of medication and therapy for Corey. In his early thirties he stabilized, got the truck-driving job and entered the big world. When the truck gig ended, he spent three years in TV and VCR repair school, where he earned high grades and worked two extra jobs during his off-hours. "It never hurt me to work hard," he says.
What did hurt was something less tangible. For some reason last year, everything crashed down again, and Corey retreated back into the little world. He moved in with his parents--until they told him they were afraid of him and that he would have to go. "But I wouldn't have hurt them or anyone I love," he says, a little incredulously, "and I love them very much."
Corey ended up in Fort Logan, which impressed him as "pretty cool--there's so much food in there, you can have whatever you want, ice cream and stuff. But they kept locking me up in my own little cell. And after a while," he adds, as if embarrassed by the behavior of someone much younger and less responsible, "I was just bothering people too much."
Enter lithium. Within weeks Corey was well enough to move into a Jeffco group home and to attend CSP, where he now supervises a clean-up crew for pay. But far and away the best thing about CSP, he says, is the improv group. Corey had undergone therapy before, and spent hours trying to decide if he were "mad, sad, glad or scared," but never had he been asked to supply a split-second ending to a gag about 101 constipated rabbits who walk into a bar. At first Corey hung back, worked on the music and sets, and went on stage only for the Chorus Line production number that closed last year's show. "I was out there singing with a cane and a hat, and it felt so good," he marvels. "The best part was the sound of clapping. That was therapy."
Out from behind the blue velvet curtain come the men's and women's improv teams. There is something tentative about the comics: One or two seem blinded by the spotlights, and--
"Hey!" Julie yells, "this is all wrong, you guys. Come on out with a little happiness. Let's pretend it's a manic stage."
No problem grasping that concept. This time the entrance is much more professional. Julie runs down the center aisle and faces the audience. "Okay now," she says, "we need a bunch of professions that begin with a."
"Architect," someone says.
"Abyss," someone offers.
"That's not a profession," Julie fires back, "or is it?"
Here's the setup: 101 architects (or archers, or actuaries) walk into a bar. The bartender says, `I'm sorry, we can't serve architects.' The architects say--
And the CSP teams are supposed to supply punchlines. What turns up, though, is more existential humor rather than shtick. One person freezes on the spot and says, "Oh, phooey"--but this gets a laugh, too.
"Good," Julie says, Mama Rose-like, from the wings. "The more the audience groans, the better it is. Now audience, name some things that piss you off."
"The Fort Logan psych ward!"
"The dog pound!'
"People who interrupt!"
Julie assigns an actor to each gripe and begins conducting what turns into a symphony of catharsis, which is interrupted when one actor turns up late.
"Take off your coat," she says, "and don't you ever, ever, ever do this again. And you," she yells at another performer, "reach in there and get a good grip on her bra strap. Good bit! Good bit!"
Without exception, the cast members enjoy Julie's tirades. They've seen her act much the same way in Four Chairs, No Waiting, the improv group she performs with one night a week at Herman's Hideaway.
"Yeah, these guys come down to see me all the time," she says. "They're interested. They learn stuff. They come over to my apartment, too. We hang out. The truth is, I care more about them than anyone else in my life, and what I am doing here is the best thing I ever do, period." Not to mention the best use of a four-year acting degree. "I sit in my office," Julie says, "and clients come in and and tell me they want to be a janitor. I always say, do you really want that, or is that all your parents said you could ever be?"
Some end up as janitors anyway, but others work as "college professors and travel agents and everything in between," she says. "Clients are much more likely to be employable once they've been in improv."
This may sound like a big therapeutic leap, maybe even a little, well, crazy--but Julie is invited to present her theory at the rate of one international conference per year. "Other places say they do improv, but they don't," she explains. "Either it's psychodrama, where you play you and I play your mother and it's incredibly stupid and depressing, or else it's the staff acting out mental illness. We just do pure comedy, no mental health stuff allowed. And there's weird side effects, believe me."
For Lori, the effect was pretty simple: Improv and lip-synching gave her back the drama that left when she stopped hearing voices.
"I do miss them," she admits. "They said things to me. Most of it was them taking care of me or giving me a wonderful soap opera. It was kind of nice to me, but the clinic didn't like it, and even though I was having fun, it did get on my parents' nerves, because sometimes I wouldn't move until the voices said I could. And I yelled and screamed a lot for no apparent reason."
At 37, Lori has been officially schizophrenic for only seven years, but she's been "in and out of places like this through the years," she says. Unlike other CSP clients, she rather enjoyed her stays at Fort Logan. "They give you an awful lot of attention there," she recalls. "And to tell the truth, I didn't want to leave. Finally I decided to take medication, and the voices stopped. Only problem, it keeps me from having much ambition. I used to have ambition to put on makeup or go to the beauty shop and have my hair done in a French braid."
Since rehearsals began in earnest, though, Lori has had someone to do that for her. ("Oh, I wish someone would dress me up everyday," she says.) Lori wears a blue chiffon prom dress for her "Tammy" number, and during "When I'm Calling You," she is a ringer for Jeanette MacDonald--until she begins to strip. "Yes, I undress down into a sadistical lady prostitute," she explains. "It's a lot of fun. This is all kind of new to me. I love carrying on like a real live actress."
Who doesn't? Steve, who sings Steve Miller's "Abracadabra" in the show's only a cappella song, loves it so much he can't seem to stop parading around the halls in his red devil costume. Clearly, Julie is addressing her latest pep talk to him.
"The whole point of this is a laugh," she explains. "I don't want anyone peeking through the curtains waving hi to Mom or getting caught accidentally-on-purpose taking a leak in their costume. It will blow the whole setup, and I promise you that will make me insane. "Meanwhile, though," she continues, "you guys will be great, and I am just so proud of you. All of you."
"In high school, they used to call me The King," says 25-year-old Ricky, whose Georgia roots show up in his accent. "I guess I have a gift for music. I done six or seven of these shows, but you know, this one, this is as far as I've ever been."
Indeed, Ricky was the logical choice to play not just David Bowie, but Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand at the same time. With his long blond hair and weightlifter's body--you can pump iron at CSP, too--he is the boy ingenue of the troupe.
"I do volleyball, too," he adds, "and I go to Warren Tech for small-engine repair. I guess you could connect it up that there is mental illness here," he adds, reluctantly. "You could put that down, but I don't talk about it."
Diane, Ricky's mother, does. "Why, for two years he didn't know who he was," she recalls. "He spent all his high school years at Fort Logan. I blamed myself for a long time, because I did hair while I was pregnant, and the day I had him I did fifteen heads of hair first. All those chemicals, and he's got a chemical imbalance is what it is."
Diane says Fort Logan doctors told her the best she could do for her son was sign him over to the state. "He won't ever know you, they told me," she recalls. "But I stayed right with him. I said, the Lord didn't give Ricky to y'all to raise, he give him to me."
After nearly twenty medication trials, Ricky ended up on Clozaril, got his own apartment and began therapy at CSP. "It's a miracle drug, but improv is a miracle, too," Diane insists. "It brought out the side of him that was not ill. Julie worked him. She put a really, really good grind on him. I tape every one of the shows on VHS and oh, gosh, yes--I watch them all the time."
Her favorite moments are Ricky as Rod Stewart--she did his hair herself--and "in real tights," doing a dance called The Swan. "What I can't believe," she continues, "is what we can do together now. Me and Ricky and his friend Tom, from the center--we can go out to a club and hear music. We don't drink, of course, but we can go, and they will actually go up to girls and talk to them or dance."
Ricky was the first of the pair to accomplish this feat. He now has a girlfriend, and she plans to attend the show. Tom is coming along a little slower--but then, says Diane, he was once so shy no one believed he would ever appear on a stage.
"But Ricky got him into it," she continues. "He said, Tom, you should go. It will bring out your personality. You have a personality.
"And he did," she says. "He did.
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