A BSR Philly Fringe guide: Mental health onstage

Comedian Krish Mohan is performing in the Fringe Festival at West Philly's Art Church. (Photo by Tara Arseven Photography.)

Opening up a personal, small-scale, experimental piece of theater to the world, as hundreds of Philly Fringe artists do every year, is probably more than a lot people would consider doing. But many artists dig even deeper to tackle some of our most stigmatized topics.

Issues of mental health are rich ground for a wide variety of theatrical approaches, from storytelling to standup to “living art.” Here are four productions that are going there at this year’s Fringe Festival.

For three performances on September 22, 23, and 24, the Galleries at Moore (1960 Race Street) will host AIM Academy Drama’s Perspectives. “You look at me. What do you see? You don’t know who I am,” the show warns. It’s a compilation of young writers’ takes on subjects including body shaming, gender identity, anxiety, grief, and ADHD. They “invite the audience to join them as they confront preconceived ideas, assumptions, and judgments.” The hourlong show is free.

‘I’m OK, Are You OK?’

PHIT Comedy also promotes the conversation around mental health with a remount of PHIT veteran Molly Scullion’s I’m Ok, Are You Ok?, which premiered last March (here’s my review). This one-woman show is an intense, engaging, and funny primer on coping with trauma. Scullion doesn’t mean for her experience in the aftermath of a childhood sexual assault to stand for anyone else’s, but her honest recounting of the personal and therapeutic journeys that led back to a functional and satisfying life have the seeds of universal truth for anyone coping with trauma, abuse, or PTSD.  The show ($12) is coming to the mainstage at the Adrienne (2030 Sansom Street) September 6 through 10.

‘Approaching Happiness’

A traveling comedian whose work has been featured on NPR and at venues across the country also grapples with mental health through laughs in Approaching Happiness with Krish Mohan ($10), coming to Art Church of West Philadelphia (5219 Webster Street) September 7 through 15. Mohan describes himself as “a socially conscious Indian standup comedian and writer” who focuses his wit on race, religion, immigration, relationships, and political and social issues, including gun control. Approaching Happiness is a one-hour show exploring “the idea of happiness and perceptions of mental illness in today’s society.” (Mohan is also the host, writer, and creator of the weekly web satire series Fork Full of Noodles and hosts the Taboo Table Talk podcast.)

Humanizing suicide statistics

Elephant Room Productions tackles some of the toughest stuff of all, asking, “How would you feel if your entire life was summed up by a single number?” An “exhibit of living art” mounted at Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine Street) features 10 “testimonies” from 10 writers in 10 artistic mediums that invite audiences to look beyond the statistics of suicide.

Suicide Stories: Gallery of the Untold ($15 to $20) will run September 12 through 17. The different installations add up to an “ongoing” show that lasts two hours at a time, but attendees are welcomed to come and go as they please, engaging as quickly or deeply as they choose.

Suicide "is frighteningly common and also not discussed enough. Even within our company, we have each been touched in some way by this epidemic,” Elephant Room artistic director Lauren M. Shover said in a recent interview with FringeArts. “We want to break the stigma by giving audience members a personal journey and experience with this piece.”

Patrons will learn that the subjects of these stories “are not so different from them,” which is important in an age when “we are so numb to hearing suicide statistics, dates, ages, etc. We want to show the audience the people, the lives, the stories behind the numbers.”

A portion of the show’s proceeds will go the American Mental Wellness Association for suicide-prevention efforts and related campaigns. For another immediate chance to make a difference, attendees can make a donation at each performance to local organizations addressing issues that the show’s artists raise.

At right: Molly Scullion is OK; are you? (Photo courtesy of PHIT Comedy.)