Unhappy Days: My Mental Health Nightmare at a Summer Stock Theatre

Kevin Ray Johnson

  • Guest Columnist

As we embark on a new year that means SUMMER STOCK THEATRE auditions are just around the corner. I wanted to tell a true story of what happened to me four years ago and why your mental health is key.

It was the summer of 2014 and I was set to work at a theatre company in Maine that was doing a musical based on the TV show, "Happy Days". I was really excited because at the point in my life I was open to perform to anywhere and being an African-American when you get the chance to do shows that you wouldn’t always be considered for, you jump at the opportunity.

The one thing we are taught in our business is to stay strong, never show weakness and stay professional. For me that meant suppressing all my emotions or if I felt someone was treating me poorly. I just didn’t speak up about it. Everything about how I went towards this business brought me to this particular summer. Instead of seeking help or a counselor, I was onstage performing with a theatre company with actors who were all nice but a great example that not everyone you work with is gonna be your friend or look out for your best interests. 

It was opening night a day or two before 4th or July when I hit rock bottom. I wasn't in the best mental state and wrote some music lyrics on my Facebook page that was mistaken for a suicide note.

From what I remember, that night I finished the show with no problems and went for a walk to try to clear my head. I came back and no one was at the residences which was strange, but I didn’t think anything of it and at the time I felt I just needed to be alone anyways. I laid down in my room to fall asleep and about ten minutes later the owner of the theatre came and asked if we could talk. I agreed and he brought me to the theatre where I was met by two police officers and was arrested.

I was completely caught off guard and was brought to a suicide watch at a hospital where my right wrist was handcuffed every night for five days. Apparently, I was deemed dangerous by the cast. These people I was working with called the cops and got me arrested. I made my one phone call that night to my mother who was in tears and I just remember saying “I’ll get myself out of this”.

The next day I called the theatre and spoke to the man in charge and he was very nice and said “We’ll have all your clothes and stuff nicely folded and packed when you get here” (remember that).

So the next two days were filled with doctors coming in and out speaking to me but I could just see how little they cared about me. They would ask me questions and when I started talking or trying to converse they would just say “Okay great thank you so your fine?” and just leave.

Being on suicide watch only made my mental health even worse. One moment I am singing and dancing in a musical and that SAME night I am taken away by police, put on suicide watch with my right wrist handcuffed being watched by a cop with the light on. I couldn’t close the door or turn the light off and it was like this the entire time and in five days I was given one shower which a cop and a nurse watched me.

While this is being done the people that put me here were going on with their lives. Taking selfies and never looking happier. While they got to spend Fourth of July on a beach, I got to spend it in a room with no windows. It was without a doubt the most scarring five days of my life and to this day I suffer from PTSD because of it.

Now, remember when I said the manager was gonna have my clothes nicely packed when I got back? Well, I was met by all my clothes in trash bags and members of the cast walking by me and looking at me like I was either a disease or like I didn’t exist. This was truly the first time in my life where I did not feel welcome. I was walking to put my stuff in the car and I saw another cast member pull up with the person who replaced me as if they were hiding waiting for me to leave. Later that day, on their Facebook page they introduced the new cast member with the heading “Goodbye Grey Sky, Hello Blue” which yes is a line from the show but I couldn't help feel that was a direct shot at me. This is what you would call rock bottom.

When I got home I got some legal advice and my lawyer thought it was pure discrimination. I was the only African American working there and the moment I showed a little vulnerability they used it and deemed me this dangerous human being. While I could have played the race card, I just didn’t want to do that. I could have also chosen to sue all of them for defamation of character which my attorney strongly suggested but I just didn’t want and chose not to do that either.

I guess in my mind I didn’t want to give people who wrote me off, the effort or energy. I made the choice to suck my pride up and just walk away from the situation and to focus on myself. My doctor was a dream come true and got me back on track and I will forever be thankful for him. Since then I have reconciled with only one artist from the cast and it was so wonderful when she and I finally spoke and she said “You needed a friend and no one was there for you”. It may sound funny but it gave me hope. It re-inspired me and this conversation only happened about ten months ago.

I also took time to take a step back and figure out what exactly went wrong that summer. Like what happened?

I feel it was two things. I feel the people I worked with overreacted but we only knew each other for not even a month so maybe they felt their reaction was justified. And two. I should have got help before the summer. I should have taken time for myself and just received help. 

To all my young talented performers who are getting ready to start auditioning for summer stocks this summer, let me say this.

The theatre world is one of the best to be in. To this day I love waking up every day and calling myself a professional actor and writer. But after that summer I learned one thing: AUDITIONS AREN'T GOING ANYWHERE. Don’t fear missing out on opportunities. They will be there again. I honestly thought my career was over after that summer and several months later I am made my Off-Broadway debut in a musical called The Love Note.

You have to remember that everyone you work with in summer stock or any theatre for that matter is not going to end up your friend. You are going meet some amazing people in this business but you are also meet people who flat out do not care about you and will make it clear that they don’t want to be your friend. This business can be harsh and blunt like that but like always, the good will always outweigh the bad.

Though it is not your business what people think of you, you cannot control how people react to your actions. While you truly know who you are, people may see something else and react a certain way. For instance, calling the cops on the “dangerous black man” writing angry and depressing song lyrics on social media.

Lastly, unless you feel one hundred percent certain about something always look back and try to see both sides of any story. There are always three sides to a story (Side A, Side B and the truth) but if you try to review the situation from different variables with optimism it will always make you a stronger person.  

Mental health is so important not only in the theatre business but in life. The only person that has the power to fix your mental health is you. Make sure you have a wonderful support system around you but YOU have to be the one who puts in the work to fix your health. YOU have to be the one to one day wake up and say “I love theatre. I love what I do. But I need to get my shit together”.

And always remember that it is okay not to be okay. Never let anyone make you feel like a criminal if you aren’t okay. Never be ashamed of who you are. Am I embarrassed or ashamed of what happened to me? Not at all. I feel it needed to happen. I have been fortunate to work with kids who have contemplated suicide (Some being as young as 8 years old… Think about that) and I want to use my experiences to help the generation after me. When you own up to the person you are and you admit to your flaws I guarantee you NO ONE will have anything negative to say. And remember one thing with whatever you are going. There are people in this world who truly love you. Never forget that.

I hope you all break legs in all your auditions and have a great summer performing across this country!