A Concert For Mental Health : I Get Personal with Producers and Cast

A Concert For Mental Health : I Get Personal with Producers and Cast

Matthew Blank

OnStage Columnist

Time to come clean, guys.  When you see me roaming the streets, you naturally think, “That there is a man who has it all together.  A handsome man who, dare I say, has likely never known a true struggle in his life.”  Well, friends, I’ve got stories to tell.

When I was 17 years old, my dad killed himself in the most dramatic of fashions.  I was fully immersed in high school at the time, focused on SAT’s, AP tests, college applications, choir, theatre, my showtune collection… the usual stuff.  So it was jarring to come home one night from an evening of bowling with castmates, to find my mother sitting awake on the couch at 2 AM.  She sat me down, clearly uneasy and informed me that my father was 2 days late picking up my sister for their weekend visitation.  And, before she could even get the words out, I knew what was coming next: “Your father is dead.”  Earlier that day, she got a warrant to enter his home (they were long-divorced) and found him dangling from the pool table.

And a pic of me and my dad, Mark Blank

And a pic of me and my dad, Mark Blank

Time stopped.  Not in that devastating, end-of-the-world way you hear about.  What jarred me the most, surprised me the most, was the fact that I wasn’t surprised.  It was no secret that he was a genius-level, troubled, complex man.  A man ending his second marriage, facing lawsuits and an unceremonious end to his fairly prominent career in academia.  I saw it coming, realized I had no power to stop it, and focused my energies on being a comfort to those who were truly blindsided and remain devastated by the loss of a loving and brilliant man, who taught me at a young age not to waste time enduring the ignorance of others, and that Carousel truly is the greatest score of all time.

Long story short, it was a horrible time for my family, but we persevered.

A year later, the mother of my long-time high school girlfriend succumbed to cancer for the 3rd and final time.  This gorgeous Cypriot woman with youthful energy and a striking British accent that resonates powerfully in my memory, was one of the only truly “good” people I have known.  We went on a trip to NYC to see Rocky Horror and U2 and, as we wheeled her around the city, were fully aware it would be her last visit to one of her favorite cities… or anywhere, for that matter.  The relationship would end soon, as they often do, but I still keep a tiny envelope of Soulla’s hair, from the head-shaving party we held upon learning she would be starting chemo once again.

Cut to 2007.  I’m living in NYC and just launching what I imagined would be a prestigious and profitable career in theatre journalism (save your comments).  While on a first date with a lovely young lady (I took her to see a promising new show on 37th and 9th, by the name of In the Heights), we were crossing the avenue in search of sangria, and a truck spun around the corner, striking her and knocking her to the pavement.  The next half year was spent visiting her in the hospital while in coma state, going to church (which I swore I would never do) and finally saying goodbye when hope was lost and the machines were shut down 6 months later.

The point of all of this is to say that I have known and dealt with tragedy.  Sadly, it is an area in which I boast quite a bit of experience and have since then been able to serve as a resource to those suffering their first losses.  After the last incident, I was left truly angry and wondering why these things happen.

Then, clarity struck.  I mean no disrespect to anyone’s individual pain, experience or set of beliefs.  But the comfort I took in the end was to tell myself this: No. Things do not happen for a reason.  Nothing good came of these losses, and I felt it personally insulting to be told that this was part of any sort of divine plan. My comfort came from the idea that things DON’T happen for a reason.  Random, bad shit happens to great people for no reason… and it reeks of privilege to assume that we are exempt from tragedy.  Tragedy unites us, makes us human.

And that is why we need to embrace every moment of life, treat each other well, and appreciate all of the joy, sorrow, laughter and drama that we encounter.  We all hurt, but we are here.  What we do with that is totally up to us.

When I heard that a few dear friends of mine would be producing a concert at 54 Below, benefiting Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, I offered my services in any way.  In this case, it came in the form of this interview and my own memories, which I do thank you for indulging.

In the end, we only have each other, our memories, and the joy we can bring into the lives of our loved ones.   So please, hear what these amazing talents and spirits have to say, think about the sorrow and pain in your life, and come out on the 26th to celebrate life, help those going through the struggle, and have a good time in the process. Through each tragedy, it was theatre, community and love that helped me persevere.  For every loss, there are scores of people left to remember, learn and create.

As they say in one musical or another: Forget regret. Give yourself a reason to rejoice. And eat the cake you have… down to the last crumb.

Enough about me!  Let’s talk to these superstars, and learn why this March 26 evening at 54 Below will be one to remember!

(And to anyone dealing with pain right now, I offer my personal contact info and am happy to speak to anyone on any topic.  I’m no professional, but I can offer perspective.)

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MB: Let’s start with you, Caitlin.  How did the idea for this concert come about, and how did you go about selecting the ideal performers to serve as voices for such a serious and important issue?

Producer Caitlin Cooke:

Caitlin Cooke

Caitlin Cooke

I came up with the idea for this show quite a while ago actually.  In high school, I lost a close friend to suicide and another friend to it just last year. I miss them both terribly and have felt the need to honor them in some way. I felt it was important to stop feeling helpless and to actually DO something that would hopefully make a difference in the world.

Suicide and mental illness are such taboo topics that no one likes to talk about, but I think people MUST talk about them. I shared the idea for a benefit concert with David, my co-producer, and asked a bunch of my incredibly generous and talented friends to sing for me.

Both friends that I lost were incredible performers, so I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a concert to celebrate life! Here we are and I couldn’t be more proud and grateful!

MB: How did you get involved in this project?

Co-Producer David De Almo:

I actually got involved while at a different show at 54 Below.  My wife and I were standing in line to get in for Drew Gasparini's last concert, and Caitlin walked by - she's roommates with a friend of mine - and we flagged her down and sat with her at the concert.  Over drinks we started talking about wanting to produce at 54 Below, and Caitlin pitched me the idea - which we then both turned around and pitched to Programming Director Jen Tepper that night at the bar across the street.

It all happened extremely fast. I was producing Chris Gethard: Career Suicide at the time, which handled very similar themes to the ones Caitlin wanted to tackle, and through that show I had connections to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, so it was a natural fit.

Michael Campayno:

Well, it all started when I spotted a beautiful blonde at a web series premiere, her name is Caitlin Cooke.

The rest is history.

Ashley Kate Adams

Ashley Kate Adams

Kate Loprest:

I got involved when my dear friend, Caitlin Cooke, asked me to be part of the show. Ironically, I had just seen Chris Gethard's show,Career Suicide, a week before. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance. I don't want to give away what I'm singing but I'll give you a hint: it's dedicated to thing that has helped me deal with anxiety more than anything else. 

Ashley Kate Adams:

I was asked to sing in this concert by my best friend Caitlin. She and I have been working together now for the past three years with a bunch of neat projects like our little web series, “Rules of Cool.” When she told me she would be producing this event I knew exactly what I had to sing. I'll be singing "Through the Mountain" from Kentucky's own Floyd Collins.

Jenna Leigh Green:

My wonderful friend Caitlin Cooke reached out to me about the concert and I was immediately on board. Anything for Cait and a great cause! I'm singing a hilarious duet with my dear friend Ravi Roth that will be sure to bring the laughs as well as a song that will definitely allow the crowd to "Get Happy" ( wink wink)

MB: I'd love to hear any personal stories or connections to how suicide or overall mental health has affected your life.

Cooke: Like I said before, I’ve lost two friends to suicide, one last year and one when I was 16. Both of those friends left huge impressions on my heart and I miss them every day. James was my big brother in high school, with my mom even teaching him how to drive. He was incredibly protective over me and proud of me, so I have tried to continue to make him proud by following my dream of living and working in New York.

I also have dealt with anxiety and depression since high school, and am proud to say that I’ve never let it stop me from pursuing my dreams. Living in New York with anxiety can be extremely difficult, but I’m grateful that I kept pushing myself to continue on and to live my life in the fullest way possible. It never really got easy, but it’s gotten easier to control and I’m gratefully not dealing with it as much as I used to.

Michael Campayno

Michael Campayno

I surround myself with incredibly supportive people and have open discussions daily with family and friends about mental health and how important it is to continue the discussion. I also think I have two special people looking out for me, nudging me to go on with a smile on my face. ☺

Campayno:

This event is so important. The fact that the producers are taking time to support and openly speak about mental health is key for normalizing this stereotyped issue. Everyone deals with mental health, from being overwhelmed and stressed to having panic attacks - and it's very important for us to speak about it as normally as it occurs.

I suffered from terrible anxiety and panic attacks in high school and half the reason it kept occurring was because I didn't know what it was and thought I was dying (LOL...but really). I'm grateful that I went through such a confusing time with my anxiety because I came out on the other side with knowledge I can share with others dealing with anxiety.

De Almo:

I've been lucky enough to not have anyone I know directly affected by suicide, but my wife had fairly debilitating anxiety when we were younger, and that did affect our daily lives.  It was really inspiring watching her rise above her illness, through therapy, medicine, and just personal growth and sheer willpower,  In the end she started a blog called "Breaking the Stigmas," which showcased her story as well as others - she ended up getting submissions from three continents, and thousands of hits on her facebook page and website.  It's been a joy to watch.

Loprest:

I have always had nerves about performing but was able to focus that anxiety productively in college. It wasn't until after college that I had my first traumatic panic attack which led to months of anxiety and the beginnings of depression. I was 23, had never been sick in my life, and suddenly my head was spinning 24 hours a day; I felt faint and nauseous all the time. The anxiety manifested itself in vertigo-like symptoms.

The saddest part about it was that very few people were a help to me. Some chided me for not being strong enough, others made me feel like I was a crazy person, some even went as far as to say, "I was doing it for attention." I questioned leaving the business altogether. I moved back to NYC and decided to give it one last shot away from the negativity that I had experienced in the past. I proceeded to book three Broadway shows!

Kate Loprest

Kate Loprest

Still, the anxiety hovered… and I punished myself with the negative words people had said to me: "not strong enough," "not good enough," "not going to make it." I did everything I could to keep from taking a prescription because I was afraid and ashamed. A casual conversation I had with a castmate (whom I very much admire) changed my mind.

Turns out, A LOT more people have anxiety than I thought. I released myself from the shame and got what I needed. I take 10 mg of Paxil each night and have a Beta Blocker on hand just in case I get nervous and overwhelmed. I tell people the truth because I hope it will inspire them to ask for help. 

Adams:

I have been personally very lucky to not have anyone in my immediate life who has taken their own life, but I have recently experienced the massive loss of my father which has felt almost as jolting, unexpected and comparable to this type of tragedy. I can understand it is heartbreaking and it leaves so many loved ones in shock not knowing that through our pain we must continue to live. Mental illness is a thing and as a society we have shunned it. I thank God everyday for my therapist, she massively has helped me to live my life to its fullest. 

Green:

I think most of us have as some point been affected by mental illness and/or suicide. It is unfortunately far too prevalent in our world which is why a concert like this to raise attention is such a wonderful idea. Sometimes it's enough to just let someone know you are there for them.

MB: Any words of wisdom or kindness you can provide for anyone who might be struggling with depression or other issues?

Cooke: You are not alone. Most everyone I’ve talked to about this topic has been honest in sharing that they too have dealt with anxiety and depression at some point. I think keeping the conversation open and honest is crucial.

If you’re feeling alone or scared or your brain just won’t shut off, TALK TO SOMEONE! Mental illness isn’t something anyone should be ashamed of. And also, just be a good person to others. You never know how badly the person you bought your coffee from or bumped into on the train really needed the smile you gave them. I try to live every day for my friends that I’ve lost in the way they would have-kind, grateful, and with a huge smile.

De Almo:

David De Almo

David De Almo

My big piece of advice is this: don't live with it in silence.  Talk about it - with loved ones, with doctors, even anonymously on the internet.  I'm a firm believer in the power of stigma for mental illness, and the more open we are with everything, to more likely it is we'll find understanding and healing. 

Campayno:

You are in control!

Loprest:

1) YOU ARE NOT ALONE! You are not the only person in the world who has ever felt anxious or sad like you do.

2) YOU ARE NOT CRAZY! You're not the only person who has ever felt out of control of their body. You're experiencing a chemical reaction and it's not your fault.

3) TELL SOMEONE YOU TRUST! When I first started experiencing panic attacks, people removed themselves from me. It was like I had the flu. What you don't realize is that they too are dealing with their own anxieties and fear that yours will have an affect on them. They're not bad people or bad friends, they're just not right for you at that moment. Find the right people. The ones who will hold your hand tight and lift you up.

4) ASK FOR HELP! Don't self-diagnose. Ask about a prescription or ask a friend to connect you with their therapist. It's New York City: EVERYONE has a therapist!

Adams:

Oh my gosh, yes. The biggest thing I try to do with encouraging myself, my friends and loved ones when they are going through a hard time is whether your current state of mind is situational or in result of past trauma, you are not supposed to have to battle through these things alone. There are people everywhere who want to be apart of your journey in a positive way. Even if we don't know how to begin to "get better," it has helped me to say in my own life to loved ones and my therapist "I don't know how, but I want to."

Green:

I know it sounds cliche to say "It gets better" but I have found in my own life when I've have been faced with challenging or sad times that by leaning on friends and loved ones for support or even just a good laugh, eventually all things indeed get better.

MB: I can’t thank you enough for your candid, generous responses.  This isn’t an easy topic matter for a lot of people, and I truly appreciate your words and stories and I hope that those who read this will come out to support such an important cause.  I, for one, will be there with bells on!  To wrap it up, since I've got you here, are there any other projects you're working on at the moment?

Cooke:

I’m currently writing a few different projects, so we will see! ;)

De Almo:

I just finished up producing a four-month run of Chris Gethard: Career Suicide at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre in the East Village.  I also have my own solo show, Occasionally Employed, which won its category at MITF last fall and is playing The PIT's Striker mainstage theatre this March.  I'm also spearheading a new comedy series at 54 Below on Sundays at 11:30, and I'm Co-Producing a live recording of Giulia Rozzi and Will Miles' “Hopefully We Don't Break Up" podcast in April at SubCulture.  So, lots of one-off's instead of a big show like I've been used to doing the last two years, but honestly I love working these one-nighters. There's no time for anything to get stale or boring.  It's all-go, all the time.

Campayno:

Ah man. I'd tell you but I'd have to kiss you.

Loprest:

In the past 6 months, I've proud to have been a part of the advent of the "musical podcast." The first podcast I recorded last fall, “Wait, Wait Don't Kill Me!,” was highly rewarded and I'm about to do another musical podcast this month. It's a show I've been attached to for about two years now and I'm excited for the world to hear it. I've done a lot of work in recording studios in the last year and I love it! You can always check out www.KateLoprest.com for more! 

Jenna Leigh Green

Jenna Leigh Green

Adams:

Hehe, oh Matt!  Yes I do! I'm in a "coming of age" 80's comedy movie that will premiere March 31st with a theatrical release called "Pitching Tents." I'm very excited to be heading out to L.A. for that premiere! It was a blast to film and I have always wanted my Regina George moment in the woods. Now it will be happening, literally.

Another neat thing is a series that my production company, AKA Studio Productions, produced called "Capital Advice" is making rounds in the film festival circuit and it's doing very well. We've also got our beloved play The Dodger coming back to NY soon after a great run in L.A. and I'll be directing Aladdin Jr. this Spring for A Class Act New York. So those are the main things in the driver's seat… at the moment!

Green:

Well, I have a fun role coming up on the ABC show “Quantico” that will be airing March 20th. Also, I'm still singing and dancing 4 times a week in The Marvelous Wonderettes at The Kirk Theatre on Theatre Row. It's such a sweet, fun show… everyone should come check it out!

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Produced by Caitlin Cooke (“Rules of Cool”) and David De Almo (Mike Birbiglia’s “Thank God for Jokes”), the one-night-only event features Ashley Kate Adams (La Cage Aux Folles, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), Alex Brightman (School of Rock Tony Nominee), Alyson Cambridge (Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall), Michael Campayno (Wicked, “The Sound of Music Live!”), David De Almo (Occasionally Employed), Sally Eidman (“Pretty Things”), Drew Gasparini (NBC’S “Smash”), Jenna Leigh Green (“Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” The Marvelous Wonderettes), Courtney Halford (Disney’s Tangled, the Musical, Footloose), F. Michael Haynie (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “Peter Pan Live!”), Kate Loprest (First Date, Hairspray), Julia Mattison (Godspell, Brooklyn Sound), Larisa Oleynik (“10 Things I Hate About You,” “Mad Men”), Will Roland (Dear Evan Hansen, The Black Suits), Ravi Roth (Altar Boyz, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas), Antoine L. Smith (The Color Purple, Miss Saigon) and Clyde Voce (Rock of Ages, Elf:The Musical).

Musical Direction for the concert is by Ben Caplan, whose prior credits include 50 Shades the Musical and His Girl Friday at Barrington Stage Company.

54 Loves You: A Concert for Mental Health will be at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on March

26th 2017 at 9:30pm. Tickets start at $25-35 with premium seats at $60 and $25 food and beverage minimum. Tickets and information are available at www.54Below.com.

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