Bringing Acting Experience to Mental Health Education: Making an Impact and Boosting Hope

My name is John Joshua William Oxenford and I’ve been acting since I was eight years old; I started playing roles like Dish Washer in “Cinderella” and Sorcerer 2 in “Sleeping Beauty” for Boston Children’s Opera. Sooner or later I was getting some more substantial roles at school plays at Agassiz Elementary—now Baldwin Elementary. A few of these were Wiley in “Wiley and the Hairy Man” or Sebastian in Twelfth Night. By sophomore year at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, I won a few awards playing Jason in Euripides’ Medea, as we took the play to the Massachusetts High School Drama Festival. I started winning awards and competitions, and eventually was accepted to Boston University’s School of Theatre with a substantial scholarship.

I got involved with the dance department in my senior year of high school (this is Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School’s Modern Dance performance).

                Sebastian in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the role that probably has my fondest memories. I first played it in middle school, but later used it as the monologue I took to the English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition, in which I won the Massachusetts branch and went on to win 21st place nationally. The monologue starts with the line “This is the air, that is the glorious sun” and I remember visualizing that as I was onstage in New York, looking up at the audience and feeling that unique sensation of being onstage that a theater actor truly knows.

Another role that stands out to me is Allan (or, Big-Al), which was my first professional role in The Boys of Winter, written by Barry Brodsky, Dean B. Kaner, and Eric Small and directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary, performed in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. The role I was given was a young man, just graduating from high school, deciding to enlist in the army and go to the Vietnam War, upon graduation; I recently had decided to take a year off from school (Boston University), and it was interesting performing in front of my school friends, as well as other people presumably from different places in Boston whom I probably didn’t know; that feeling of being able to take my skills to the professional world was refreshing and invigorating and the cast I worked with in that play was very comfortable and friendly. 

Being an experienced actor is an amazing feeling, there is no describing the powerful feeling of standing onstage, in the lights, with more than a hundred people’s quiet attention as you present these words – this monologue – that you have spent innumerable nights practicing and practicing. That being said, your monologue means nothing if you don’t have a crew that supports you, and you them, as they perform, or help run the production from backstage.

All of this looked so good from the outside, but inside I was struggling, and I didn’t trust anyone to confide in, to talk to about my struggles. 

This is me in Michael Chekhov’s “The Sneeze” (in Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School).

                Substance use was the source of my problems. I was drinking and experimenting with drugs, and it isolated me, leaving me in a helpless confusion, and a growing doubt and anger to all the other people in my life. So, my grades plummeted in the second semester of my Freshman Year, and I decided to take a year off, with the intent of trying out becoming a professional actor, and making it big without the (what I felt were) constraints of the education system. I started off with some success; I played Allan, in The Boys of Winter, and Romeo in a production of Romeo & Juliet in The New Art Theatre in New Hampshire, and ironically Dromio Servant of Syracuse in Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors; and that’s when I stopped entirely.

                The next few years led to substance abuse and isolation and eventually led to a suicide attempt. However, I recovered, and in those next years of recovery I started realizing the benefits of personal health, love and friendship, and how to re-engage in my personal hobbies, in a healthy way, without self-criticism or too much pressure. I began to think of the effect a character might have on me; what were the differences between (Shakespeare’s) Sebastian and Mark Antony? What feelings were emoted in a monologue from a character like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire? What effect did a character like, the Vietnam veteran I played in “Judevine” (by David Budbill), or Jason in Medea (Euripides), have on me? And instead of recklessly trying to conquer any role that was given me (or that I chose), I made the decision to approach roles in a way that was healthy for me. I reconnected with my life as a theatre actor on my own, in a few classes at Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and again in school as I took classes in Bunker Hill Community College’s Theatre Concentration (I now I have my Associates in Theatre as I graduated last May). 

This is me performing a monologue of the character Mark Antony in William Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra (the cold reading given to me at the Final Branch of The English-Speaking Union National Shakespeare Competition. I won the Massachusetts branch of the competition!)

The classes at Bunker Hill were fun; where I didn’t find as much pressure as I did at BU, I was still able to express my feelings and instincts in roles, now in a healthier way. In my “Acting 2” class (taught by Donna Sorbello) I found that, even though the other students seemed to be preoccupied in their other classes, Donna gave me some time in working on a monologue I was interested in. She pushed me to try my hardest in the scene we were working on. Her playwriting class was interesting as well, where, we as students of all levels, wrote our own scenes and shared them to each other, giving constructive feedback. Another class that stands out for me is Robert St. Laurence’s improv class. We went out to see actual live improv in Boston and Cambridge and used that live experience to create our own scenes and bring our skills live to the school during an in-school performance. Proshot Kalami’s direction in our radio play production of The Persians was invaluable, and even though we performed virtually, I still found her teaching to be wise and motivating.  

                And now I am working with The NAN Project; the similarities between our presentations to students and teachers in classrooms to when I performed onstage, are striking. I get the same nervous energy before it’s my turn to present, like waiting backstage – waiting for the queue line from my fellow actor; I get the same healthy breath of fresh air as the words I am saying are in good flow; and I get the same feeling of satisfaction as my story is over, and I sit down, as the curtain, on my stage, goes down. But it’s not all the same:

                Presenting with The NAN Project is a different task. The same round of applause is there, but we are not looking for the glorious uproar as we humbly take a bow – we are looking to connect to students who are going through what we went through when we were their age, and struggling. We hope to educate and empower. We aim to create an environment in which students can ask the questions that have been on their minds to people who’ve been there. Watching a stirring play or movie, or being involved in a production where you get to present an inspirational monologue is moving and cathartic, and acting for me has always been a healthy way to express my emotions (or feel healing emotions as I watch another actor perform.) Presenting with NAN about my own story of crisis and recovery is also a way to connect directly to those who are struggling, give youth options to reach out to, and feel less alone. Whereas, with NAN, I am not necessarily looking to stir emotions, I am looking to connect with my audience, and empower them to reach out to the supports that are available for them, to help themselves or a friend. 

Here I am presenting my story of recovery and healing with The NAN Project at Newburyport High School.

One skill that I have learned from acting is emphasis on emotional vocab and emotional grammar; these two skills came to me from the works of William Shakespeare and David Mamet (as well as coaching, direction, and training with the goal of trying to flush out the emotional emphasis of a character). Working with Shakespeare’s elaborate emotional vocab helps me find some emphasis in certain sentences in my NAN story. I might try to flush out the emotions on my depression or recovery – such as the moment when I saw my Mom as I woke up  in hospital. I may also choose to tone the emotions down in a sentence, or leave a moment’s silence to help the audience digest what I have just said. This is where emotional grammar comes into play as well. Whereas with my Shakespeare side, I might try to flush out the emotions, with my emotional grammar (Mamet side) I might find the timing of a period, comma, or parenthesis.   

                The NAN Project helps me reconnect with some of my acting genes, but it also helps me connect with compassion. It helps me feel good presenting to an audience again, but it also helps me think and feel how these words I am saying will connect with a student who is experiencing challenges with their mental health. Yes, I have a script, but now the character is myself, and it describes my life, and my struggles, and the challenges I have overcome. Here with The NAN Project I have a crew, like in the theatre. However, now this crew is actively listening to what I am saying in order to support not only me but those who can benefit from the sharing of our lived experience. We are a team that works together to offer solidarity and helpful strategies to those who need them, with the hope that they can go on to live with support and strong mental health, and that is priceless.

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