Upstage Stigma shouts, dances through mental health treatment

Elena Hight performs a half-sung, half-spoken word ode to their late uncle for the audience at Upstage Stigma.

Elena Hight performs a half-sung, half-spoken word ode to their late uncle for the audience at Upstage Stigma.

Image By: Sam Jones

One artist jolts across the floor, thrusting their limbs as an extension of the staccato bursting through the speakers. Another voice crackles, rumbling along as their distress and frustration escapes their lips as spoken word  — another sings, another drums, one after the other. 

Publicly confronting your invisible illness — depression’s ever-present tenebrosity, chronic pain’s constant coercion, the uncontrollable ebbs and flows of bipolar disorder, or the itch-you-can’t-scratch nature of schizophrenia, to name a few — is unfathomably daunting. Openly professing your inner discourse, the demons keeping you up at night, may feel muddled or incoherent even to those not experiencing the same reality you live in. 

Yet, with a gentle push and constant assurance from organizations like Upstage Stigma, the battle against oneself and their mental illnesses doesn’t have to be so draining or so arduous. 

The brainchild of community member, UW-Madison alum and social worker Emily Erwin-Frank, Upstage Stigma aims to put a face — or faces, rather — to mental illness and its impacts on Madisonians from varying walks of life.

Founded in the wake of the 2016 election, this organization orchestrates riveting performances across Dane County where artists can discuss their emotional struggles through spoken word, song, dance and other creative avenues. 

As founder and artistic director, Erwin-Frank has been forced to reconsider her own role in the organization, as well as more generally among the community. 

“The show really was about my own stuff, too, and when I first started it, I did not see it that way,” Erwin-Frank said. “The truth is I've been evolving the whole time, the other performers have taught me so much about myself. Their vulnerability has inspired me, what they've shared … that is so raw, and their different processes and discovery has affected me.” 

At their most recent show hosted by the Black Earth Library, eight performers dove into what it means to live with mental illness, either through their own diagnosis, rock-bottom moments or the loss of family members due to inner warfare. 

“How we say things as individuals, how we feel things, is different. But what happens when you have a diverse audience of people who feel things in different ways, when you go to a show you're bound to connect with one, if not all of the performers,” Erwin-Frank said. “It's a unique and effective way, I think, to show people that you're not alone.”

A spoken word piece analyzing the dichotomy of depression and anxiety — a metaphorical pair of the devil and angel on your shoulder that you can’t quite differentiate — by Katy Briggs opened the show, concluding that recovery isn’t necessarily about recovery, but rather discovery. 

Alexander McMiller followed, offering an intensive dive into the mind of someone who is schizoaffective — a disorder that frequently entails the unpredictability of mood disorders and hallucinations of schizophrenia. McMiller presented a trade-off between truth and deception as it pertained to his previous delusions, those of demons and dark power and discussion of whether it is more or less comforting to know that they are simply that — fragments of his disorder. 

Despite their own internal battles, each performer’s set heavily touched on the human condition — and what it means to be an empath as someone with a mental illness.

Circe Johnson tackled this head-on with a poetry piece inquiring morality as it pertains to wealth, childhood as it shapes our expectations (or lack thereof) of those surrounding us, and the stark experience of being the weird kid. 

Upstage then jumped into the bounding dance performance by Kooy Buie — precisely entitled “Yin and Yang”delving into juxtaposition of the turbulence of emotional struggle. Futuristic, yet raw and faultlessly mortal, with an abrupt switch from agonizing murk to hopeful radiance, Buie shined. 

While not inherently political, themes of resilience and unwavering acceptance were glaring throughout the show, soft smiles and a ‘come as you are’ spirit suffocating the room. Erwin-Frank even discussed how the current political — and more simplistically, social — climate has impacted this community so deeply. 

“Something that this show has taught me, is that none of us are in a vacuum. People's stories contain what is happening around us, and it is so inherently about intersectional identity. What we struggle with is so big, it is never anyone’s fault that they struggle,” Erwin-Frank said. “Every individual is still clearly part of an ecosystem and I think I might have kind of unconsciously known that that was an important thing to expose in this project.”

Particularly reflective of this was a half-sung, half-spoken work by Elena Hight, detailing the life and death of her uncle. It was clear that Hight consistently feels the weight of the world, her abraded vocals and soft strumming positioning her to tell the woes of losing someone — someone seemingly out-of-reach, a victim of miscommunication and misunderstanding. 

After a brief intermission, Melody Waring shared her visceral experience with chronic pain, particularly as it intersects with her depression; simultaneously earning the title of a demon and companion. Uncut, and beautifully so, she plummeted into the meaning of a diagnosis, and how, even after searching for answer after answer, there may not be much solace in a label: “I know my pain, but I do not know my diagnosis.”

Songs of loss, love and forgiveness by Molly Krochalk were to follow, as well as a harrowing poetic jaunt by Asias Johnson recounting the aftermath of a toxic relationship, and its closeness to childhood lacerations. 

Concluding the evening was Verge Manyen, a Library Mall regular and percussionist who found peace within his art. 

In treatment, Manyen didn’t fold — he started a band and found a family within the drummer community. 

“I had to learn to love and protect and stand up for myself, to go from wanting to kill myself to now,” Manyen said. “You’re not living until you’re loving. Sometimes you just need to take the armor off, and that’s what drumming has done for me.” 

Erwin-Frank is fully aware that love — not vengeance or cynicism — is at the root of these shows, and is enlivened by its community and its potential to expand through listening to one another. 

“So much of it is about making spaces for conversation. There needs to be a genuine curiosity of what each other has to say, there has to be this appreciation that you will only grow yourself if you can be there for someone else's experience,” Erwin-Frank said. “You will grow the most by talking to somebody who is different from you, and there's an inherent contradiction that's really beautiful. You see how we're all the same.”

Upstage Stigma’s next show will be on Jan. 11 at the Madison Public Library’s central location, with a lineup of veteran performers and newbies alike. Beyond shocking compassion, beautiful art and communal vulnerability, however, don’t expect much. 

“Every show has its own personality,” Erwin-Frank said. “And you don't fully know what it is until it happens.”

Sam Jones is an opinion editor for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of their work, click here.

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