With mental health concerns rising high at Yale, a group of students have found an outlet to examine the issue in a new light.
Written by Monica Hannush ’16, “Under” opens Thursday night at the Morse Crescent Theater. The musical follows Serena, a fictional sophomore at Yale, as she explores both past and present events leading up to her placement in the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Hannush, who has spent time in Yale-New Haven’s psychiatric ward and taken a leave of absence from the University, said that before her stay in the ward, the musical consisted only of a group of individual scenes without a connecting narrative thread.
“I was in a place where the writing I was doing followed the advice of ‘write what you know’ very literally, and this was something I couldn’t not write about,” Hannush said. “Once I made a friend in the psych ward, it helped me put everything in perspective.”
Hannush described the musical as a “soft mystery” in which the audience learns more of the events that led to Serena’s placement in the ward as the story progresses. While the musical’s plot is based on Hannush’s personal experiences, she said the characters have been developed to a point where they no longer bear any resemblance to the people in her life.
Michaela Murphy ’17, who plays Serena in the musical, said the musical does not utilize metaphors or other indirect methods of presentation to portray the topic of mental health. She noted that although she could never fully understand the personal experiences that inspired the musical, she did manage to draw from her own experiences in interpreting her character.
“This play, I think, attempts to expose the raw and internal reactions to the overwhelming Yale experience and the beating an individual can take,” Murphy said. “This play is the underbelly of ‘the perfect Yalie’ and exposes the inhuman treatment one receives if they don’t ‘fit the bill.’”
Director Alexandra Cadena ’17 said the most challenging aspect of the show was working with an original script. She noted that actors who personally identified with their roles found it difficult to keep clear the distinction between themselves and the characters. The performers have to insure that not too much of themselves is seen in the musical as opposed to the world of the character, Cadena added.
Over the last year, campus awareness and concern about the University’s mental health policy has risen. Hannush said she believes that all members of the Yale community will be able to identify with the musical’s storyline, adding that even if students in the audience have not personally felt the emotions that abound in the musical, they would know others who have. Hannush described mental health as the most relevant issue on campus.
“As a director, you have to have a tremendous capacity for kindness and creating a safe environment for your actors, especially for this kind of material,” Cadena said. “I think for many actors this has been some of the hardest material they’ve encountered.”
Unlike most theater productions at Yale, the musical will include an electronic dance music soundtrack. The show will feature a live ensemble of seven student musicians, whose instruments include a piano, violin, electric bass and drums. Julian Drucker ’16, musical director and composer for the musical, said he strove for “the dichotomy of the manic-depressive.” The musical score includes pop-rock songs as well as songs of other genres with darker tonal harmonies, Drucker explained, as a reference to Serena’s bipolar disorder, which is never explicitly stated in the musical.
Performances of “Under” run through Saturday evening.