A Piece of Their Minds

Tim Brown explores the dark side of the brain in "An Exquisite Dream of Fire,' a theater work that tries to dissect mental illness through memoirs and letters.

September 23, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Tim Brown is a natural inquirer, someone who uses his theatrical training as a springboard for exploring the infinite variations of human nature.

A graduate student in theater at Towson University, Brown, 31, doesn't rely on his own observations for drawing conclusions about those variations. His approach has always been to learn from the experience and views of others.

When Brown took a day job at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill after graduating from Marquette University, he not only learned the intricacies of advocacy work, he absorbed the stories and struggles of those who lived with brain disorders.

As he left to pursue his degree two years ago, an Alliance board member, Jill Bolte Taylor, stopped Brown and said, "You know what I want to see [on stage]? Some small sense of what it's like to live with a brain disorder."

Brown took Taylor's request to heart. Tonight, he and Funkopolis, a Baltimore-based performance ensemble, present the premiere of "An Exquisite Dream of Fire," a theater piece that explores the interior landscape of mental illness.

It is second nature for Brown, who most recently directed "Wings" at Axis Theatre, to "want to crawl into somebody else's body" and look around. The notion acquired new resonance when he considered crawling into the mind of someone with a brain disorder, be it schizophrenia, major depression, bi-polar, obsessive-compulsive or panic disorder. If you cut your hand, Brown explains, your brain tells you to put on a Band-Aid. But, if it is the brain itself that is cut, "what does that tell me?"

By attempting to find an answer to something that is, to some extent, unknowable -- the workings of the body's most mysterious organ -- Brown set upon a nearly impossible task. "Fire," as it combs the minds of those with brain disorders, is, in effect, a search for the answer. An answer that, in the end, is not entirely available.

Trying to solve ultimately unsolvable problems is the kind of exercise that Brown seems to relish as a galvanizing force. Kerry Flynn, a former colleague of hiswho contributed to "Fire" early on, says the very process of explaining brain disorders to an audience is risky. "It's hard, because the more accessible it is, the less powerful it becomes." But, says Flynn, who lives with major depression, "the more truthful to our experience or our feelings we tried to be, the more we feared it would seem gimmicky in its abstraction. It was hard to find a balance."

Brown, however, isn't one to let such risks stop him. "Tim is a very passionate, expressive person and you see his fingerprints all over [the play]," Flynn says.

Don't call him a playwright, but a "text constructor" who works in the avant-garde vein of collaborative play making, and looks to communities -- united by geography or sensibility -- for "source material." Brown assembled "Fire" from hundreds of accounts of those intimate with the ravages mental illness can bring to individuals and their families.

Searching for universal themes and experiences, Brown drew, for example, from stories such as one sent from a teacher misdiagnosed with depression who, with a strong dose of Prozac, experienced hallucinations: "I believed that I was all powerful and had to hurriedly fix the problems of the world."

A different doctor determined she had bi-polar disorder and prescribed lithium. The improvement was immediate. Today, this person writes of being "not euphoric but not despondent -- just fine."

Another correspondent wrote exultantly: "Only recently, with good medications and (sometimes) hospitalizations, I have told my wonderful psychiatrist my secret: I really don't want to die!!"

Then there was the letter from a woman whose daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia, whose thoughts appear practically verbatim in "Fire": "I love the girl that is, as well as the girl that was, more than I can say."


Other contributions are reflected in the script as salient phrases and fragments. And there are stories that inform the piece in more oblique, but equally critical, ways, says Brown, who also read deeply in the depression memoir genre, including William Styron's "Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness." The show's title is taken from the work of Virginia Woolf, whose passionate musings on madness are one of several narrative lines that lead spectators through the play.

"Fire" is a raw, non-linear, abstract piece that will challenge audiences with its content and form. An early scene in which a cast member conveys what it is like to have obsessive-compulsive disorder is particularly potent and disturbing. Brown first thought the piece "would be a lot more hopeful. In my heart, it's what I wanted it to be." But after poring through untold accounts, he realized, "This can't be a rosy picture."

What he found "wasn't necessarily a universal theme of hope, but it wasn't a universal them of despair, either. It was the whole spectrum."

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