Healing and survival on stage at Oberon
At 7 pm on a Thursday night at Oberon, people sit at tables and booths with drinks in hand as they chat. Some have come in support of either a performer or another audience member, but everyone is mingling and making friends left and right. Already, it seems like the audience is a like-minded community, and it’s easy to see why.
The setup of the venue is done to encourage this atmosphere—instead of rows of seating, chairs are clustered around small tables. At each seat is a small slip of paper torn into a rough rectangle bearing information about mental health resources and hotlines as well as a short note from Daphne Dumore, the producer and emcee of Psych! Healing and Surviving.
Dumore works in the mental health field as an adult day treatment clinician and has been in the field for almost seven years now. The position involves running group therapy and teaching people how to deal with their symptoms, and has a significant educational component.
“There [isn’t] only one way to do healthy counseling and one way to express yourself,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I do the show. This [show] is aerialists, writers, [and] burlesque performers showing their own mental illness in a medium that makes sense to them.”
Psych is an annual burlesque show about mental health, and is currently in its second year. However, Dumore has already received overwhelmingly positive feedback and can see the show successfully being held every year in the future.
“Not only have the performers told me that they really needed the show, people in the audience have [also] told me that they need this show,” she said. “Last year, [the reaction] was really good, lots of tears.”
However, Dumore has her reservations about the field of mental health.
“A lot of people who teach about mental health ignore [its] history and how it was used to oppress people based on race, gender, and sexuality,” she said. “The whole gamut of what we consider diagnosis now is also based on what fits with that [particular] society.”
For Dumore, burlesque is one such way to combat a restricted perspective of mental health and a good medium for helping a diverse set of performers express their personal experiences and struggles.
“I jokingly say [burlesque] is stripping with a theater degree,” she laughed. “But at the end of the day, I feel like it’s really just expressing an idea through your body and just bursting it out from you.”
When the lights dim, Dumore emerges in a glittering sequined dress and wastes no time introducing herself as the night’s host and producer, and setting the tone for the night. She gives trigger warnings in advance of the night’s performances and encourages the audience to take a break from the show if necessary, but the tone of her speech soon turns celebratory.
“We are here,” she declares to the cheering crowd, “we are neurodiverse, and that is okay!”
Much like Dumore’s announcements, the tenor of the performances flipped between somber and triumphant. The performers tackled mental health topics, including alcoholism, night terrors, PTSD, medication, and gender and race in the context of mental health, in ways that were alternately deeply personal, educational, or even amusing and entertaining.
Performer Kenzi Cox’s act focused on the panic of night terrors, through the medium of aerial hoop. While her goal was mainly to represent her own experience to the audience, she believes that the night’s show was helpful in raising awareness of mental health issues.
“I think that any time people share their experiences in an honest and vulnerable way, it is educational,” she said.
Cox would love to see the annual event continue on for years to come, as well as continue participating. For her, the show represents an “amazing place of art and vulnerability,” where normally overlooked perspectives in mental health are validated and normalized.
“I think there is power in sharing stories that are outside of the Eurocentric, male lens,” she said. “There is also a lot of stigma around mental health in regards to nonmale people.”
Performer Megan Chiampa opted for a more direct approach, relaying their experience with PTSD with poetry and narrative. They also had more to say about privilege in mental health.
“In order to really get help, you need to have money,” said Chiampa. “A lot of people came up to me after the show and were like, ‘I don’t really have any help, I’m on a waiting list.’”
However, it’s evident that much of the audience connected with the performers’ raw emotions and expression of their experiences with mental health. Similarly to Cox, Chiampa received huge support from both the cast and the audience.
“The audience cheered me on—literally—the whole time,” they recalled. “They applauded when I was talking, it just made me so happy. After I got off the stage, I went to the back, and all the performers were crying. And I was like ‘Oh god, what did I do?’”
Although Psych’s impact on the audience is clear by both their reactions and the success of the event, Dumore wants us to remember the twofold importance of the event.
“We are here to entertain you, but we also do this for themselves,” she said.