What's it about?
Wilderness is a multimedia documentary-style theatre piece that revolves around six teenagers in 21st Century America who spend time in the desert of southern Utah in hopes of recovering from their mental health issues, addictions and struggles with gender and sexual identity.
What'd I experience?
In my twenty-two years living in New York City, I have never taken the J train before. Today was the day for new and unexpected experiences. The commute was relatively smooth for a Sunday. When I got off of the J train at Essex Street, I was immediately stopped in my tracks at the beautiful view of the Williamsburg bridge. It was right there - smack in front of my face. It was the closest I've ever seen a bridge on foot.
The venue from the outside looked very much like a church. It's called the Harry Dejur Playhouse. To go along with my lack of expectations for the day, I had zero expectations for this piece. All I knew before entering the space was the title and that was it. I didn't read any summaries, I didn't even try to see what style of theatre it would be. I went in completely blind.
The audience was very diverse. There were people of various ages - although dominated by mostly college freshmen, and various races. I had high hopes that everyone in that room would feel connected and represented, no matter what the piece was about. While in my seat, maybe five minutes in, I was in awe of the media used. It included images of landscapes (fitting since this piece takes place in the desert of southern Utah), moving images of stars at night and even Skype conversations with the parents of the teenagers at the camp.
It pains me to say what I am about to say. It pains me because mental health issues and all of the other topics that were brought to the surface in this piece all resonate with me, whether from my own personal experience or from someone I know and as an undergraduate with an (almost) B.A. in Psychology, anything revolving around mental health is right up my alley. But, I did not feel represented in this piece.
Usually, I am able to turn a blind eye to the casting in productions and I think that's one of my favorite parts of seeing theatre but, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was not a part of this conversation. I don't know if it was the fact that the teenagers involved were all white with enough money to be sent away for weeks to a camp in Utah to try and get better, or were able to be sent to another country to explore life on their own post camp, or the fact that a lot of the topics were addressed in the most extreme manner, but, I couldn't see myself in any of the characters, no matter how much I connected to their issues.
This was one of those shows where I really had to spend some time post show thinking about my reaction to it. It didn't come as easily as it has in the past for me. I sat on my bedroom floor the night of the show with the program in hand thinking "How did I even feel about this? I DON'T KNOW!" And with the program in hand, that's when I stumbled on the "Note from Anne Hamburger"; the writer of the piece. Her note helped me to center my thoughts on the importance of bringing up the conversation of mental health and why we need it.
"I have come to understand just how true it is that no matter what we do, how hard we try, or how much we love, failure is an inherent part of the human experience - and that's okay, as long as we learn from it." - Anne Hamburger
This line in particular from her note was how I was able to write this. I couldn't figure out what the "right" response to this piece should have been. I was probably supposed to cry, laugh at a few moments of comic relief but I didn't and that's okay. My experience of this piece was still valid and I could still appreciate it even if I didn't have the response that I would have expected myself to have. There was one line from the closing song that I really loved that plays on a loop in my head: "We can do more than just survive". And I couldn't think of a better ending. I may have walked into the theatre without any expectations, but I definitely walked in with my own baggage and personal issues that no one knows about. I feel like a failure quite often and that's because I fail all of the time. I get things wrong and most of the time, I deal with it on my own. But, if there's anything I took away from my experience of this piece is the notion that we all long for connection - sharing our most vulnerable self with others - and we can always do more than just be alive. I know for certain that I am capable of so much more.