Ranking alongside taboo topics such as gun control and sexual education, mental health is undoubtedly heavily stigmatized. The mainstream media often exhausts mental health issues as scapegoats for many different issues. While the broad and diverse topic has not had a proper platform to be discussed on, times are changing. Mental health is starting to be acknowledged and accepted more and more. Erasing the Distance, a Chicago-based theatre organization, is dedicated to helping those affected by mental illness(es) in a creative and constructive outlet.
Heather Bodie, the artistic director for Erasing the Distance, spoke to Echo about her journey with the company as an actor and story collector.
What is Erasing the Distance?
Erasing the Distance is a Chicago-based organization that for the last 13 years has created safe spaces for storytellers to share accounts in their lives in which mental illness, abuse or addiction played a significant role. The interviews are conducted by accounts are transcribed by a story collector, who is an actor, who creates a monologue performance out of the words and experiences of the participant. The process is an alternative form of coping with and embracing mental illness. Since the company started in 2005, more than 250 stories have been added to their library. The group has performed for nearly 55,000 people in the past 13 years.
What is courageous communication?
Courageous communication is achieved throughout the organization through a collaboration of the folks who work with us. This stems from speaking the truth at all times, even if it is coming from a place of fear, and sitting in that discomfort and knowing you are going to pull through. It is a way to engage on an internal level with the storyteller. The organization not only encourages its storytellers to be courageous but also sets up the story collectors to do the same through their training. As the topics discussed are very personal and very heavy, it would be no surprise that it can take awhile to get the ball rolling.
How can the story collectors make the storytellers more comfortable?
We work very hard to make sure that the setting where they share their story with us is safe and judgment-free. Comfortability is important in this setting, naturally, the storytellers want to feel as though their stories are being cared for. We train our story collectors to always work very consciously at being compassionate and eradicate their inherent bias around mental health stigmas and other biased ideals active in the world. When you can sit down with someone and have open eyes, and open ears and an open heart, something really amazing can happen.
What kind of training do the story collectors go through?
Throughout the entire process, the storyteller is in complete control. Consent is acquired no less than three times throughout the process. Once before the story sharing begins, after the story sharing ends, and once again after the conversation has been transcribed after storyteller has had a bit of time to reflect on what they have said. They can say hey you know I shared that story about my mother but upon reflection out of respect for her id like to leave that part out. At any time they can adjust or pull out of the project.
After consent has been achieved on all levels and the story has been transcribed into spoken text—the final element is learning how to portray someone in punctuation on paper. With the safety of the storyteller being the number one priority, a preparation checklist is given to the storyteller before they hear their story told. [We provide] breathing exercises, tools to aid them in processing strong emotions that may come up in the reading. Trigger warnings are very important in this process. For example, a story where someone has bipolar disorder and a story is told to them about a manic episode, the story collector will have space knowledge about how to read the room.