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A Mind in Flames
By Mary Stucky
February 18, 1999
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The desire for artistic expression is inherent in every human being. That's the view at the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts which is opening a new play this weekend. Interact is the only place of its kind in the country, offering people with mental and physical disabilities a chance to become artists.

"A Mind in Flames" is about mental illness; written and performed by artists who know firsthand what it's like to live with schizophrenia, depression, and paranoia.

IN A THEATER SPACE IN THE MINNEAPOLIS warehouse district, actors and musicians are rehearsing the play "A Mind in Flames". They say this is a drama about the realities they face every day.

While inspired - at least obliquely - by Dante's "Inferno", "Mind in Flames", as developed by the cast at Interact, has a very contemporary approach to its subject.

These artists spend their days at Interact working on the play. Others at the center draw, paint, and write with the help of professional artists from the outside.

The Interact artists have a range of disabilities; some use wheelchairs, others have Down's syndrome, are deaf or blind, or developmentally-disabled. They drew on their own experiences to write the play, according to Jay Carter, who plays the lead in "A Mind in Flames. "
Carter: I've suffered from depression all my life and, by doing this play, I'm having to reach back into my old way of thinking, my old way of behaving, and so I'm digging into what I've hoped to leave behind, but for theatrical sake, I'm doing this. This has been a really challenging role for me.
Hollingsworth: There's no way anybody else could have did it but us.
Damon Hollingsworth helped write the play. He plays the devil who taunts and teases and holds out false hope. Hollingsworth says he knows this devil.
Hollingsworth: I really believed I was the devil; that was part of my diagnosis, manic-depressive, paranoid-schizophrenic, suffering from delusions. I went through that phase for about five or six years, and when I finally got out of it, I felt like a burden had been lifted off my shoulders. I really felt at peace.

I found out I wasn't the only one with stuff like that, they were my lines, my biography, at the same time, they went through similar circumstances.
It's tough, unsettling stuff, but Actor Joan Wheeler says the play gives audience members a rare opportunity to enter a world which is all around them, but one they often shun.
Wheeler: I would hope that it demystifies and personalizes mental illness for more people so that we're not just a bunch of crazies, but rather we're people, and they can identify with "Oh, I felt like that", or " Yeah, that feels familiar", and realize that we're all of us on a continuum.
In fact, there may be some artistic advantage to being mentally ill, according to Jeanne Calvit, Interact's co-founder and its artistic director.
Calvit: People with mental illness just have this incredible imagination. This play is very surrealistic, and it was very easy to create these scenes because these people are close to that; that juxtaposition of reality and unreality. They can jump up and improvise on that, so they're freer in some ways, you know.
Actor Jay Carter agrees.
Carter: I would like to think that through this whole process, the creative process, I like to think I've fine-tuned my madness so it works more for me than against me.
Jay Carter and the other actors say their work at Interact is about the redemptive power of creativity for both artist and audience, which happens to be the message of the play as well. "A Mind in Flames" open Friday and runs through March 20th at the Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts in Minneapolis.