Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Interview with Jenn Marshall about This Is My Brave (and tickets to the NY show)

Among the many gifts I came away with from the Hippocamp15 Conference was new writer friends who, in addition to writing their own stories, are acting as creative conduits through which others can tell theirs. This included publishers, storytelling organizers, reading series curators, podcast hosts. That includes Jenn Marshall.

A Virginia resident, Jenn is the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization This Is My Brave, which presents artists performing original essays, poetry, and songs about living with, or loving something with, a mental illness. TIMB has put on shows in Washington DC (twice), Boston, and Iowa City. This past June they opened for the Mental Health Americas annual convention and presented at the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) annual conference in Chicago last week. On October 4, TIMB will present its first performance in New York City (ticket giveaway info below).

Q.  How do you describe the TIMB project to those who aren't familiar with it?

This Is My Brave is a monologue-based storytelling production created to end the stigma of people whose lives have been affected by mental illness.

Some background: I had been writing anonymously about my experience living with bipolar disorder for about a year and a half. I finally reached a moment where I was sick of hiding my illness. I felt like I was contributing to the stigma instead of helping to end it, as I had aspired to do when I first launched my blog, BipolarMomLife.com.

A. piece I wroteabout being a mom living with bipolar disorder was published by a fairly well-known website, and my illness was no longer invisible. I had made it known. When I opened up about my true identity online, the exact opposite of what people had warned me might happen, happened. Friends and family called, emailed, texted. People I only knew in passing in my community stopped me to thank me for sharing my story. More people than I could count said, Me too. And I knew I was on to something.

Q. Then what?

A: Several months later, my creative partner Anne Marie Ames and I, launched our Kickstarter. Our vision to produce a theater show made up of regular people from the community who were ready to share their story of living with mental illness through poetry, music and essay, to end stigma. The support poured in. Our goal was to raise $6500 to cover the costs of producing the show in the DC-area, and within 31 days we had reached over $10,000 and were funded!

Our dream was taking off. We then put the call out for auditions and were blown away by the level of talent. The show was cast with 13 individuals and the debut show was a huge success. We sold out the nearly 400-seat theater and received rave reviews.

Many people asked us when wed do it again so that theyd have a chance to share their story.

We became a non-profit and held a show at our local high school that fall. In spring of 2015, This Is My Brave shows were created in Iowa City, Harrisburg, Boston, and we had a brand-new show in the DC-area. The more shows we put on, the more requests we get to come to new cities. Were thrilled at the response and know that others believe in the power of putting their story out there, too.

Q. Where does the name "This is My Brave" come from? What inspired it?

Around the time we were naming our show, the Sara Bareilles song "Brave" was hugely popular. Anne Marie and I were so touched by the lyrics, which talk about standing up for what you believe in, being brave because being silent wont change anything. This spoke to us on so many levels. Also, we were constantly told that we were brave for sharing our stories. The name This Is My Brave just fit.

Q.  I noticed this quote on your Mission page: One day we will live in a world where we wont have to call it brave when talking about mental illness. Well just call it talking. Can you elaborate?

Our Vision as an organization is to someday reach a point where people everywhere can feel safe and supported enough to talk about mental illness openly in everyday life. Weve reached that point with cancer, with autism, and with diabetes. With each story shared, stigma is dismantled even more. One day, the collective voices of stories brought to the light will have shattered stigma completely. Its what were working towards.

Q.  You're planning your first-ever show in New York City (ticket giveaway info below). Did you find that those who auditioned differed from those in other parts of the country?

A. No, not really. Every time we pop up in a new city, its interesting to see the types of presenters who step forward. Sure, New York City is home to an incredible pool of talented artists and musicians, but weve seen unbelievable talent emerge in every place weve put on shows. Reminds me of the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams: If you build it, he will come.  Every time weve decided to put on a show in a new place, the talent we were searching for magically showed up.

Q. In the introduction video from your May 2015 event in Washington, DC, you call TIMB performance a "story sharing event". Can you talk a bit about how, as a writer, you came to understand the power of story and how story helps break down barriers and misconceptions?

A: When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was so ashamed and embarrassed that my brain didnt function normally, that I had to take medication to treat my condition, and that I had been hospitalized for a mental illness. It took me years to open up about my journey, and when I did, I experienced first-hand the power of story sharing.

Through my blog writing, I shared my pain and struggle, how I learned to overcome my mental health challenges. Over time I began receiving emails from people who had found my words and felt a connection because they too struggled with a mental illness and reading my story helped them find hope.
Read #BeBrave stories at TiMB blog

Those emails taught me that whenever were brave enough to bear our heartache, and were open and honest about our lives instead of constantly updating our highlight reel of perfect photos online, we can help change other peoples lives.

At our debut show in 2014, a young woman approached me with her husband after the show to tell me that she found my writing at her darkest moments and that reading my story saved her life.

I knew then and there that we had hit on something major. When we put our stories out there, and show our imperfections and talk about our struggles (we all have them!), it breaks down the misconceptions that, Oh, she must have it all together, her life seems perfect.

Story sharing is so powerful - lifesaving, even - because someone who is struggling, who may be on the verge of giving up on life, may find your story at exactly the right moment. And you might be the reason that person decides to keep going.

Q. Any plans to publish a book, record a CD, or make the stories available in another venue?

A. We hope to publish an anthology of the This Is My Brave show stories one day in the future, or maybe podcasts. For now, we are focused on producing new shows each year and expanding our reach with our live performances. Its truly touching when you can hear the stories from the audience and then connect with the cast in the lobby after the show. All of our shows are professionally videotaped so that we can share the individual performances on our YouTube channel.

Q.  What can show-goers expect to see and hear at the New York City show?
The New York City cast

A. So many incredible stories and such talent! Two vocal students from Hunter College will sing the Sara Bareilles song "Brave" to kick us off. Then to open, we have Comedian Christian Finnegan who has appeared on the Conan's, Craig Ferguson's, and Chappelle's TV shows. The cast is full of writers, both professional and amateur, who poured their hearts out in the essays, poetry and music they penned specifically for this show. It truly is a journey - you will laugh and you will cry. And we hope youll leave with a greater understanding of mental illness and how to support a loved one in their fight to overcome it.

Q.  Are there similarities/differences with other spoken word performances like The Moth, Story Slams, etc.?

A.  I guess the only major difference is that our show features a greater number of stories in one show since each presenter has a time limit of about 5 minutes. That allows us to feature about 12-14 stories, and enables us to showcase a variety of different mental health disorders.

Q.  Given the topic, are all the songs, essays, and poetry serious? Or is there humor involved too?

A. People might assume that stories of mental illness might all be serious, dark and sad. But these stories do have elements of humor! You know what they say, Laughter is the best medicine. I do think there is a lot of truth to that old quote. Were fortunate enough to have comedian Christian Finnegan opening our show with a short set to kick us off. And our cast has an awesome sense of humor as well, which will be evident through the stories they share.

Note from Lisa: The October 4 This is My Brave Manhattan event takes place in the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. Ticket purchase details are available here. Jenn would like to give one of this blog's readers two complimentary tickets to the show. To be included in the random drawing, do one (or more) of the following by Friday, Oct. 2 at 5:00 p.m.  11:45 p.m. EASTERN time: leave a comment here; Tweet a link to this post and tag me @LisaRomeo; mention TIMB and link to this post from your own blog and tweet that link, tagging me on Twitter; share this post on your Facebook wall or in a FB group and either tag me, or email me a screen shot. (Winner's tickets will be held at the will call window.)

You can keep up with TIMB on social media at Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram; and watch dozens of live performances on their YouTube channel. Plus, check out some very cool products that support the TIMB mission.
Colorful bracelets available at Bravegear


Unknown said...

I don't need tickets to the show haha but I wanted to say how much I love this article. Such great questions!! And Jennifer has such a way with wordi.g. Thank you both!
Danielle Fiorello

Unknown said...

Amazing! I would love to go to the show.

Lisa Romeo said...

Diane Yannick,
Looks like you get the two comp tickets!
Email me to confirm.

LisaRomeoWrites at Gmail Dot Com