Justin Lyon always considered pursuing a career in acting, but he had a hard time trusting people.
He described activities such as meeting new people, shopping and working as “oppressive.”
Anxiety and depression made it difficult to concentrate at work. Sometimes he would retreat to the bathroom to hide from the judgment of colleagues. There were panic attacks. And in his personal life, he would often cancel fun activities with his friends at the last minute.
Sometimes he would stay in bed all day.
“I would think about all of the things I needed to do,” he said, “and it would feel like a burden.”
And then he landed a role in a play called “Nobody Needs to Know.”
It was no ordinary play.
The actors themselves have minimal acting experience and no audition is required. Instead, they each possess a personal connection to the issue of mental illness. Some suffer from mental health issues; others are mental health professionals. And at the end of this unique play, the actors and audience discuss their own experiences with the stigma associated with mental illness.
For Lyon and others, it has been a life-changing experience.
Lyon first became involved in the play in 2011 after his girlfriend drew his attention to a flier from a not-for-profit organization called Awareness of Mental Health through the Performing Arts. The group had won a state grant through the National Alliance on Mental Illness Indianapolis to stage the play, originally written by a Connecticut-based psychiatric social worker, Carol A. Bozena.
“Nobody Needs to Know,” which has been performed nationwide since the 1990s, is set in a self-help meeting for people coping with mental illness. The characters talk about their everyday struggles with stigma, and their stories unfold on the stage.
For Lyon, “Nobody Needs to Know” helped give him strength to believe in himself and he felt comfortable with the other cast members as they could relate to many of his problems. He felt he could speak freely without feeling judged. The rehearsals and performances also provided structure to his weeks and gave him something to look forward to.
He distinctly remembered a transformational moment immediately after one show. An audience member came up to him, gushing about the quality of his performance and he realized his role in the play gave him a great sense of purpose.
“Acting gives you a voice without quite as much pressure. It is sometimes an easier way to express yourself than talking about your problems directly,” Lyon said.
“In a way, the script gives us the words we want to say but don’t know how.”
Life imitating art.
Bringing back the play
But in 2012, after 30 performances across the greater Indianapolis area, the funding from the grant ended.
For a period of almost two years, Lyon no longer saw his acting friends on as regular a basis and he lost the energy that had been sparked by the play. He returned to feeling isolated.
So when one of his acting friends, Mary Horne-Porter, decided to form a grassroots group bringing some of the original actors back together in late 2013, Lyon unhesitatingly jumped on the opportunity. He gradually rebuilt his confidence and, striking while the iron was hot, he took an acting class and began auditioning for parts.
“Instead of sulking in my room and doing nothing, I looked for opportunities to further my acting,” Lyon said. “Rather than focusing on preparing for things until the chance had passed like I had always done, I had the confidence to just go out and do them.”
“I feel like I can call myself an actor and I feel like I’m going somewhere.”
He is now the 2015 season director of “Nobody Needs to Know” and has been selected for about five acting roles in the past four months. He has been more social and has made a bunch of new friends in the improv community.
The play also has a double-pronged therapeutic effect.
At the end of each “Nobody Needs to Know” performance, there is a Q&A opportunity for members of the audience to share their own experiences and ask the actors about how stigma has personally caused them pain. The cast has found that, much of the time, audience members also have had mental illness touch their lives in one way or another.
Horne-Porter has been receiving therapy for about 20 years for depression and the post-traumatic stress of growing up with a mother with schizophrenia.
She remembers clearly the first time she saw the play in 2011.
She just watched and cried.
“I was so proud of them and so moved by it. Even by the strength it took them to just do the play. Some of them had never performed before and may have never even spoken publicly about their personal struggles with mental illness,” she said.
Now Horne-Porter is the manager and producer of the play. She is in the process of recruiting additional actors for their rotating roster. She hopes to eventually apply for not-for-profit status so that the cast is able to reach more communities with their message in reducing stigma.
“Honestly,” she said, “the healing didn’t start for me until about my second year of being involved in this play. I had experienced how powerful the play was and wanted to keep it going.”
Crystal Dobson, a cast member who has struggled with depression, said she got to a point where she began to believe she was her illness.
“You start to believe you’re not a person anymore,” she said.
“The play touched me so much. The people were people regardless of whether they had mental health issues or not. My illness is part of who I am, but it doesn’t define me.”
Dobson said that her involvement in “Nobody Needs to Know” has enabled her to be a stronger, better person as she is surrounded by people who build her up and lift her spirits. She now holds her own support groups for homeless people and assists in building self-esteem in prisoners.
“The benefit to the actors has been unbelievable,” Horne-Porter said. “What many people don’t understand is that the brain is an organ and organs of the body get ill.”
The play lets the public know that these people aren’t contagious, she said. “There is probably someone sitting right next to you at work who is too scared to say anything.”