The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

'Code 21' in the Black Box

By Colleen Good

Code 21, a play written by Russell Schneider ’10 and directed by Nathan Young ’11, will be performed in the Black Box theatre this weekend, Nov. 20 and 21 at 10 p.m., and Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. Earlier this week, The Mac Weekly spoke with writer Russell Schneider.TMW: What led you to start this project?

RS: Jaine Strauss in our psych. department teaches a course called Distress, Dysfunction and Disorder, and she basically lets you build your own syllabus of final projects. One of the options is an art project that has to do with what we’ve been talking about in class. At the time I had started writing this play of my own accord, just sort of was dabbling with it, and I was talking with my roommate in class about how I kind of wished I could do art projects, but I couldn’t think of anything I could possibly do for it, and she sort of looked over at me incredulously and she said, “Aren’t you writing a play about exactly this subject? Don’t you think that could count?” And I was like, I guess I should go ask. And I did, and it did, so I did!

TMW: Could you explain the basic plot of the play?

RS: Sure. This play doesn’t really have any central characters. Basically, Sara and Rebecca are both checked in to this mental hospital at the beginning of the play, and they meet some of the other patients. They learn about their situations, they learn about themselves, they learn about the system that they’re dealing with. Rebecca actually has a lot of experience already and the counselor, Cassandra, is trying to figure out a way to work in the system that she doesn’t really like. The play is about them trying to figure out how to make things work for them and what they have to do.

TMW: Is there any message you are trying to portray?

RS: Yes, the system that we have for dealing with mental health is flawed at every level. It’s not inherently wrong, but it needs work. This play is basically an examination of the areas that need the most work, which are how to provide human care for people who are in great need of it, while still taking care of the providers. There’s this great imbalance between the emotional health of people who are in distress and the emotional health of the people who are trying to take care of them. We don’t really have an effective way of giving enough to the one without taking care of the other, and what we end up doing to compensate for that is systemizing things, making them too rigid and losing a vital human element. This play is asking people to be aware of that and think about how that applies to the issues of mental health in general, in day-to-day life.

TMW: What changes either specifically or more generally should be made to the way mental health is treated now?

RS: The importance that is placed on diagnosis needs to be revisited. Right now, one of the central corner stones of all dialogue about mental health in the United States and most of the world is diagnosis: What do you have? Are you depressed? Are you bi-polar? Are you borderline? Are you schizophrenic? What are you? And until they know what you are, there isn’t really much thought given to treatment that isn’t directed toward figuring out what you are, and once they figure it out, you’re compartmentalized and you’re treated as a diagnosis not as a person. Diagnoses are useful, I cannot stipulate that clearly enough, but they are given too much importance, so that a set of symptoms describes a person rather than the person describing a person, which leads to all other kinds of problems, not just in the mental health care system, but in day-to-day life as well. A person is not allowed to suffer emotional distress unless they have a diagnosis that explains it, and that is wrong.

TMW: You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but would you be willing to speak more on what your personal experiences are that made you want to write this?

RS: I’m going to make a bold move here, a move that I will preface by saying that it is very difficult to talk about anything to do with mental health these days, much less the more intense medical aspects of it. I don’t think this is right. I think that one of the best ways that you can counter such issues is to, as I believe Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I’ve been hospitalized for various psychiatric issues four times. Reflecting upon those hospitalizations, I have realized that the way that people are treated in those places is unacceptable. That is my short answer. A lot of the details are in the play-you can see them there. That is basically the honest truth.

TMW: Active Minds is co-sponsoring “Code 21” with the Health and Wellness Center. What exactly does Active Minds do, as an organization?

RS: [I am the founder of the Active Minds at Macalester.] It is basically an organization dedicated to doing exactly what this play wants to do, which is encourage people to talk about mental health in a new way, a better way, to understand the problems with how it’s discussed and try to develop new ways of discussing it that are generally healthier and more agreeable.

Active Minds hosts a couple of regular events. Once a semester at least, we host a “Slices of Insight” dinner, where the things we’ve been discussing as an organization become available to the entire Macalester community and sort of bring everybody in. We give them dinner, and then we talk about some of the issues that we’ve been pondering over. Sort of like “Soup and Substance,” except with a very specific topic. We host a “Stomp Out Stigma” 5k every year in the spring.

TMW: And what motivated you to try to start this organization?

RS: I remember it was the spring of my sophomore year-it was the end of the semester. I was faced with some mind-boggling ignorance in my fellow students that was making my life and my friends’ lives a lot harder. And I said someone has to do something about this. This is unacceptable. People at Macalester of all places, which prides itself on its open-mindedness and its general social consciousness. It’s unacceptable to be so ignorant about what mental health is, how it works and what’s okay to say and what’s not. You have people who are suffering from really intense depression and people yelling at them to stop being so emo. This actually happens. It’s terrifying. So I spent the whole summer looking into it and I found Active Minds Inc., which is a national organization which basically does everything I just said. I said, “Great! Active Minds is coming to Macalester.” And that was it. It needed to be done, so I did it.

TMW: You decided to produce the play with the help of Fog Machine. Could you explain exactly what Fog Machine is?

RS: I don’t think even Fog Machine knows what Fog Machine is. That’s what’s so great about it. It’s more like an idea than an actual entity. Fog Machine has a great founding story. Last year at the end of the fall semester, I was in Harry Water Jr.’s Acting II class. We had been doing scenes from this play, “Our Lady of 121st Street,” and as the semester was winding down, we sort of looked at each other and we said, “Do you guys want to actually do this play? I mean, all we’re doing next semester is workshops until ‘Our Town.’ Do you guys just want to do this?” And there was a pretty resounding yes, so we decided that we were going to do this play. So at one point in one of our rehearsals, one of the cast members asked the appointed director, “Can we have a fog machine?” And she was like, “Why? Why would you want a fog machine?” “Because it’s dramatic!” And then an hour or so later, I was like, “Hey guys. Maybe we should name our company ‘Fog Machine.'” And they were like, “Fog Machine? Why?” And I was like, “Because it’s dramatic!”

Fog Machine became the banner under which students come together to produce big theater productions. There’s some potential conquest with the Mac Players, and we don’t mean there to be. They serve a legitimate purpose. They do a lot of things the Fog Machine would never do. I
think they still do 24 Hour Theater, which I love, for example. I don’t know if Fog Machine exists to fill a specific purpose, but it’s just sort of an entity, it’s an idea. A lot of the people who were in the original Fog Machine production are also in this production. You know, there’s new people as well. I just sort of get the feeling that this is just a troupe. We’re just a troupe that exists. You know, people will come in and out. They just happened to be around and available to me as a source of cast.

TMW: Anything else you’d like to add?

RS: What I might like to add is that if it goes into the article that I have been hospitalized four times, I would like it to be stipulated that it does not matter why. That if people stop and think about it, they’ll realize it doesn’t matter why. The point is it happened. And all that signifies is that I was going through some extreme distress.

TMW: There’s one more thing I’d like to ask you about. The organization, Neighborhood Involvement Program. Can you talk about how you decided to collect money for that organization during your show?

RS: Last year during “Mental Health Awareness Week,” there was a site visit to the Neighborhood Involvement Program, which I was a part of. And I was just really impressed by their facilities. I figured that since I was making this big bad show that I might as well go for broke, and really do something awesome with it. And I though, fundraising would be a great little add-on that we could do. And the Neighborhood Involvement Program just immediately was apparent in my mind. They run a really great ship. I remember when we were there, though, they had expressed funding issues. And I thought, well, here’s a chance for me to actually do something practical with all of this speculative work. So I’m sure there are plenty of other organizations that would be deserving of this fundraising, but they just happened to the first one that came to mind. And there’s no official affiliation with them. Just that Macalester has visited them before through “Mental Health Awareness Week.”

TMW: Final thoughts?

RS: The really important thing is that there are a lot of assumptions that go with, “Oh, he was mentally hospitalized!” I just ask people not to make those assumptions. Understand that, yes, it does mean that there’s something else about me that you didn’t know, and that does matter. But don’t assume that you know what it is. This play is a process and reflection on those experiences. And if possible I think that I do want that information in the article. I feel like this is the time to really go for broke, you know? I shouldn’t have to be cautious or ashamed about that fact. I will pretend not to be until it doesn’t matter any more. Hopefully people will catch on.

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