Charred: The theatre of catharsis

    “Oh my god, I’m SO OCD!”

    “Wow your room is so neat, you must have OCD!”

    “Sorry it took me so long to organize those files; my OCD totally kicked in.”

    We’ve all heard exclamations like these before. So many of us have joked about Obsessive-compulsive disorder, a mental illness that affects 2.2 million people in the U.S., according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But what does it mean to live with it and constantly deal with intrusive thoughts that you can’t ignore? Charred, a new play by Northwestern senior Bex Ehrmann and recent graduate Alexandra Shields (SoC ‘15), attempts to tackle just that.

    The play revolves around a young woman named Caroline, who has OCD. After losing her family in a fire, she escapes into an imaginary world, working through her grief and her mental illness by confronting villains who personify her thoughts and compulsions. There’s the mask lady, who encourages Caroline to hide her trauma behind a happy face, and there’s a pirate who represents the self-hatred that fuels her creative writing. There’s even a small child who begins to lead Caroline towards suicide.

    But most of all, there’s Alter, the personification of Caroline’s obsessive thoughts. Recent Northwestern graduate Aissa Guerra (SoC ‘15) excels as the alluring, powerful character who encourages the violent side of Caroline’s mental illness, causing the young woman to blame herself for her family’s death. In her final confrontation with Alter, Caroline must decide whether she will allow her OCD to define her, or whether she can ever break free of the control it has on her.

    Aissa Guerra as Alter dominates the imaginary world created by Caroline's OCD. Photo by Aditi Bhandari / North by Northwestern

    “[The confrontation] brings to light the constant, pervasive nature of OCD, and also the fact that if you have it, you’re going to live with it for the rest of your life,” says Anna Civik, the senior theatre major who plays Caroline. “But the message at the end of the story, as sad as it is, is that you can get through it – you can do it.

    Ehrmann and Shields co-wrote the Charred based on a draft of a play Ehrmann wrote in a playwriting class her freshman year. Shields produced the show while Ehrmann directed, and both the cast and production team featured many current and recently graduated Northwestern students.

    Both the producer and the director live with mental illnesses – Ehrmann and her sister both have OCD and Alexandra was diagnosed with depression and Post-traumatic stress disorder a few years ago – and both were able to weave their personal experiences into the play. Some of the lines even sound like they were taken verbatim from past events in their lives, such as when Caroline’s mother unsuccessfully tries to convince Caroline that her destructive thoughts are just in her head.

    “For me, it was very important to write a play in which mental illness was represented, but where stigma is not part of the equation,” says Ehrmann. “In theatre and entertainment, very often mental illness is treated as a punchline, so it was important to us to present a story in which that wasn’t the case.”

    Caroline’s fantastical world is realized through movement. Though not a dance performance, the show involves intricate choreography combining trust-exercise lifts with the repetitive motions that are a characteristic of certain types of OCD. Under senior theatre major Savannah Couch’s guidance, the actors move through the show at a lightning quick pace, barely stopping for a breath before launching into the next scene.

    “I was so excited when I got [the script] because it has so much ensemble narration and all of the writing is so vivid,” she says. “There’s so much imagery that movement just felt like a natural way to express that to the audience as a supplement to that amazing writing.”

    The show has collaborated with several Chicago organizations that focus on mental illnesses and provide education and counselling services for the same. The Saturday matinee show will be followed by a talkback with Scout Bratt, the Outreach and Education Director of the Chicago Women’s Health Center, about the work that the Center does in supporting those who live with such illnesses.

    “The thing that really fascinates me about this play is the isolating effect of mental illness in general, either with other people making you feel isolated … and also how we isolate ourselves when we’re hurting,” says Shields. “It’s really quite surprising once that curtain is peeled back – once that discussion happens about what’s really going on inside all of our minds – how not alone we actually are.”

    Charred runs from Sep. 3 to Sep. 5 with shows at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, and 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. on Saturday. The venue is The Frontier just off of the Thorndale stop. $10 for students, $15 for adults.


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