An Interview with the Writer and Director of "Mental"

Gregg Garner is the Founder and Creative Director of The Arts at Center Street and the Arts at Center Street Theatre Company. Over the years, he has used his skills as an artist, particularly in the realm of music, photography, and journalism, to benefit audiences both nationally and internationally. He has performed in over a dozen countries and has written songs in five languages. He writes his music and stage plays with the intention to provoke dialogue and propel people to action.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gregg Garner, Founder and Creative Director of the Arts at Center Street, to discuss his new original production, Mental, which debuts June 10th.

Having read a short description for this play, I’m interested in what gave rise to the subject matter you chose to address, of all things you could address?

I kept reading in headlines and other news sources the increasing diagnoses related to mental illness. While I concede that there are many legitimate cases where people have had an experience, or physical deficiency, that has led to a mental illness, I also contend that some of these diagnoses are not taking into consideration the normality of the human experience.  

I believe that putting a negative label onto a natural human experience is more detrimental than beneficial. Even though some people would say putting a label on it is not necessarily negative, I think most folks who are labeled with a condition think something is wrong with them. Part of what I wanted to communicate in this play is that while there are legitimate mental illnesses that cause people to have deficiencies in their social interactions, there are also normal human experiences that cause people to have the same. I wanted to explore both.


The Arts at Center Street’s slogan is "Local, Original, and Meaningful."  How does this production fulfill that description?

First of all, it is local in that all the actors come from this neighborhood.

It’s original in that it’s not someone else’s work; I wrote it.  I tried to take an approach I don’t think anyone else has done. This is difficult. Once I did some research, I found that family drama is often at the center of similar kinds of storylines. In doing my research, but trying to be original, I tried to identify the elements that currently exist in popular communications. Going back to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape with Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp, all the way to This is Where I Leave You with Jason Bateman and Jane Fonda--a more recent film that deals with the mental experiences of family drama--lots of people are dealing with this.

So I had to figure out how I could use live theater to communicate some of the things that film cannot capture. I tried to not only write to capture that, but also direct in a way that would allow a member of the audience to have an experience where they would personally feel mental. So, I think some of the things I did were original.

I tried to write and direct in a way that things could happen, and simultaneously while things are happening, the audience member could have an out-of-body experience, and reflect on what is presently happening. I think that is a normal human thing we do, but I tried to show that in theater. So, how could a person have a conversation with someone else, be outside of themselves, and have the sub-context of a communication highlighted for the audience? It’s hard to write this kind of play and not be either cliché or hyperbolize what we would consider trivialities or subtlety. That took a lot in terms of originality.

Meaningful – The play is meaningful in that people will walk away with something to think about. That’s what I typically mean by meaningful. Someone will walk away and be like, “Hey, ya know, I hope I can accept people for who they are. Instead of just labeling them, I can learn to embrace them. I can appreciate their presence, even if their presence is what would be conventionally considered abnormal. Hopefully, I can learn to live with them and love them and appreciate them for who they are and not who I’d like them to be.” I think as far as ‘mental’ goes, that is probably where we get most mental. We have these expectations for people to be something other than who they are, and when they can’t meet that, we have this conflict. Instead, maybe we should learn to exercise patience and compassion, and appreciate people for who they are and learn to live with them.


How did you go about casting for this particular production?

Casting was tough. Part of my approach to writing Mental was to start different than with Alien. I didn’t want it to be like Alien. I wanted people to come in and have a different experience. Casting was going to be very important to that. I actually have quite a few actors from the neighborhood who have zero acting experience and I had to take them on as a project and coach them along. It was cool because they have been very trusting and great to work with. They have some pretty prominent roles in the production. Kristina Davis is playing Ellie Clark’s daughter Amy, a 40-year-old recent divorcee. It’s a complicated role, I wanted a fresh face for it, and I thought Kristina would be fantastic for it. She has these naturally contemplative eyes, and an impacting presence.

I have a few actors who haven’t done anything, or if they have, it has been very minor. I have returning actors who have played in other productions of mine, but I tried to cast them in characters that wouldn’t come so natural to them, so that they wouldn’t be type-casted. That’s turned out challenging as a Director. However, they've met the challenge, and I think it will be awesome for audiences to see these actors portray a different personality.

I love casting. Before I write a play, I have people in mind. I would say to a great degree I write plays for people I know, that I love. I’ve even had conversations with people in Starbucks, and walk away thinking, "I’d love to write a play for you." In casting, what you want to have is a person who the subject matter that you are communicating means something to. Once you have that, you have the emotion, and I think the emotion is what people feel most impacted by in the audience. You can have a skilled actor who is devoid of emotion and it’s often painful to watch. Or you can have an unskilled actor who feels the piece, and it can be very moving.


What are some of the challenges you have faced in being able to translate the message in your mind that you want to communicate into the acting of those involved?

One of the biggest challenges has been the time limit. I’ve had five weeks. In five weeks, I wrote it, I directed it, I designed the stage design, costumes, and lights. It’s a limited amount of time. That’s been challenging.

This play runs an hour and a half (in contrast to Alien that ran two hours and 45 minutes). There’s just a lot of information to give to people so that they can connect to the characters. Because I think that plays are about characters.  Plot is one thing and character is another, and character means more in my opinion. If I can get the audience to like my characters, then I think they will follow them anywhere, and do anything with them that they want. So, character development becomes a very important part of the writing process. And I find it challenging to subtly communicate certain facts without a character coming in and directly explaining the complexity of their character. I figure out how to say everything about them, but do so subtly. I have to do it in a way where the person in the theater would get that information, but not feel like it is being given to them in a handout. So, that is challenging.

I think also the theater space creates a challenge. I kind of like the challenge of the limited space because then you have to get creative. Even in my scenic design, I like to promote imagination. I like to get people to think. You put up a half wall and don’t even finish it but people finish the wall in their mind. Or put in a window and people complete the rest of the wall. Though it would not work in movies, I think that works in theater. It has been exciting to get enough on stage in terms of costume, prop and setting so that about 15 minutes into the play people are in another universe.


With the demands on you each day to give direction to your non-profit, what causes you to give such time to the Arts the way you do?

The Arts have the power to emotionally engage us to the degree we intellectually consider relevant issues that need addressed. So even as the CEO of a non-profit, I know that the relevant issues existing in our world need addressed with innovative, resourceful solutions, and that’s not going to come from any 1, 2 or 3 people or come from 1, 2 or 3 organizations. It’s going to come from communities who have personally taken the time to examine the issue themselves and come up with ways in which they can contribute to its solution within their very local context. So, as the director of an organization there are things we can do organizationally to impact the communities we serve, but with a play or a medium of art we can impact lots of other people who aren’t even in the realm of service that the non-profit serves. Those folks now have a bug in their own ear to think, “What can I do to make the world a more hospitable place for those who are in these conditions, for people in these situations? What can I do to change my environment so that we can make a better world?” There’s something about that idea that is inviting to me.

In addition, getting to work with actors, especially actors who want to say something, is something I like. I enjoy the experience of casting creatives and the camaraderie that develops from it--the friendships that are strengthened through it. It’s really a powerful phenomenon that I think, for me, is prioritized because our theater company tries to work with neighborhood people and our non-profit is in the neighborhood, so it’s like a double-win.

And, it’s so cool to get non-professionals doing stuff. I love that. I love getting to encourage people who otherwise thought they couldn’t do something to do something, and then having them be successful with it. That’s why I got into non-profit work--empowerment. To me that’s what theater is, it’s empowering on all levels. It can be empowering to the audience who gets a message, empowering to the actor who participates, empowering to the creative who gets to use their skill to make something happen. It’s an empowering venture.


What's the most enjoyable part of seeing a production like this through?

I love to see people have a moment where they can, I don’t know if using the word ‘escape’ is best...but I enjoy the opportunity to captivate people away from their norm--to captivate them for a window of time, and give them a new world to live in, new friends to meet. Because I try to make my characters friendly, I want the people to know them at the end. I really enjoy the result. After they are done with that encounter they feel something is different in them. They feel inspired, motivated, they want to be better people. I think that is why I do it. I want to give folks an opportunity to become better people.


Without giving anything away, what is it that you want people to take away from this production?

My personal philosophy has been that we are all a steering wheel jerk away from going crazy. 
I use that analogy to show that it’s not that far. It’s amazing how human beings keep going. I am enraptured by the power of the human soul to endure. I know that people have their different ways of doing that. They have their coping mechanisms to get through all the turbulence of life.

I guess it’s hard to judge people. I think judging people comes too quickly for most people. We judge folks too fast.  If we can refrain from judging and learn to listen, to their stories and where they come from, who their family is, what contributed to making them who they are, maybe we wouldn’t have to diagnose so many people as mental, maybe we would learn to live with the complicated realities of our human frailty.

I just wanted to put something out there that said maybe we are all more mental than we think. Rather than making things worse by making a person feel like they are even more of an outsider because of what they are going through, maybe we can learn to embrace them and give them a chance to discover who they are, within a new context of love and care.