Olivia Levine walks onstage wielding an orange impaled by a candle.
“I hope my parents are always happy and they live forever,” she says. Then she blows out the candle, and, to make sure her wish comes true, she engages in a compulsion.
She tries — and repeatedly fails — to say the word “done” sixteen times in a row without thinking about a gun. Every time she messes up, she gets more and more agitated, manic, desperate. Voice-over from the speakers narrates her inner monologue: “I’ll explode if I can’t manage to crawl outside my body or my mind but I’ll implode if I stop thinking about this.” Finally, she gets it right, and a feeling of immense relief washes over the room. She exhales.
Levine has just walked the audience through a manifestation of the obsessive-compulsive disorder that has haunted her for her entire life. It’s visceral, upsetting, and a little bit absurd. She greets the audience with a smile and begins to eat the orange. Then she realizes — “That’s so rude of me, does anyone else want one?” A few audience members raise their hands, and Levine tosses each an orange. “I’m here to share everything with you,” she says, mouth full of fruit.
So begins “Unstuck,” a one-woman show written and performed by Olivia Levine. Throughout the play, Levine invites the audience into the mind of someone with OCD, challenging representations of the disorder through a poignant personal narrative told with humor, bravery, and pain.
The inspiration for the piece came to Levine four years ago. Levine, a Barnard and Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts-trained theater-maker, was galvanized to make a play about OCD by her inability to communicate how the disorder affected her. “I’d always had difficulty explaining it in words to my loved ones,” she told me. “I often felt very misunderstood or dismissed.” Compounding this personal frustration was the big picture: that OCD is largely reduced to hand-washing, manic-pixie-dream-girl characterizations, or outright ignored in mainstream society.
So, she created “Unstuck.”
It’s part personal drama, part stand-up comedy, part activist theater, and entirely an attempt to explain herself. “When I started this,” she says, “part of me knew that even though I was just kind of trying to express myself … it was also an opportunity for other people to understand how I was feeling in those moments.” Onstage, Levine can communicate what she struggles to convey otherwise.
The plot traces the chronology of Levine’s life, beginning when she was born already chock-full of anxiety (“You know how some babies are approached to be GAP models?” She quipped, “People approached my mom asking if I’d model for ads about troubled children.”) She starts in childhood with a series of comedic, confessional anecdotes: growing up, Levine used to masturbate in public to everything from Spanish class to “March of the Penguins.” This wasn’t a problem until eighth grade, when a traumatic moment at a sleepover precipitated her first “OCD spike.” Suddenly, she says, “I was being confronted — no, unceasingly bombarded — with cyclical, intrusive, unwanted and very, very mean thoughts.”
In high school, Levine developed elaborate, irrational phobias of killing or impregnating her parents with her vagina. During college, as Levine began to discover her queerness, she developed Relationship OCD. Levine’s obsessive-compulsive behaviors began to take a toll on her budding romances, culminating in an obsession with a fellow student, a breakdown and, at last, therapy. Then, Levine traces this narrative to the present, expanding on the ways in which her OCD continues to negatively affect her relationships. These raw stories evoke the darker parts of her disorder with which she continues to struggle.
“Oh, and how about the time your first girlfriend was MIA for a couple of hours so you finally called her mom to see if she was okay and accidentally outed her to her own mother?” the voice-over taunts. Levine begs the voice-over to stop revealing these secrets, to stop usurping control over the narrative. “I’m not crazy!” she screams. She runs around the stage, listing evidence of her sanity, and her anxiety builds, and she keeps running, and it all escalates until it stops. She looks at the audience. She’s exposed, defenseless, and as promised, she’s told them everything.
“Is it too much for you!?” she asks. “Do you…Do you want to leave?”
When the audience does not, in fact, leave, Levine seems relieved. She is at her most vulnerable. It’s harder for her to talk about her recent experiences with OCD, the times when she can’t find a palatable angle. “What happens when I don’t have a joke for you?” she asks.
The remainder of the play, Levine unpacks her current relationship with her OCD slowly, carefully. She talks about getting help and finding community; she learns to cope with the aid of medication, specialized therapy, King Princess, and Dyke Soccer (look it up!). She reckons with the fact that she’s still battling her disorder, the fact that she will have slip-ups.
“I think that having compassion for myself in terms of my OCD has been another ongoing journey,” she tells me. “I think the shame around my OCD, which I started to allude to in the show, is … that I will not be perfect all the time.”
Shame looms over “Unstuck”: about masturbation, mental illness, queerness. This is perfectly executed in one of the show’s most emotionally resonant storylines, which follows Levine’s journey coming to terms with her sexuality. She tells me, “I think in some ways I thought I was totally 100% cool with being gay. And then came to realize, ‘Oh, there’s a little pocket of shame.’”
The show seems borne of Levine’s desire to subvert the isolation bred by this shame, the feeling that you are alone in your behaviors, that you are “crazy,” that you could not possibly be understood. Her play unflinchingly addresses taboo, hyper-personal topics, because, Levine says, everyone wants to talk about them and no one is.
“I’m very open about this shit now,” she tells me, giggling. “I’m hoping that that helps other people to feel like they can talk about [it too].”
Levine also incorporates a striking use of humor. Why? Partly due to her background: she’s a stand-up comic and a member of the comedy duo “I Think We’re Alone Now” with Colette McIntyre. But crucially, she often uses humor as a way to cope with, understand, and explain her experience with obsession and compulsion.
“If I feel stuck in my thoughts or discouraged by my OCD … If I can turn that into a little joke in my mind, or even if I can just frame it in a funny way, it kind of gets me out of that funk,” Levine tells me.
And it tempers the show’s heavy material: “if I were to say some of those things without finding the comedy,” Levine says, “it wouldn’t be as palatable for folks, because I think it can be really hard to hear things like, ‘Oh, I used to Purell my hands until they bled.’” Humor is a mechanism for easing discomfort, for keeping audiences engaged and open-minded in the midst of provocative or thorny material.
Another key technique Levine uses is, well, explaining things. Interspersed within the driving narrative are several instances of explicit teaching. Where an audience might have a gap in their knowledge, Levine fills it in with clinical descriptions and creative visuals. At one point, for example, Levine projects images, PowerPoint-style, against the walls of the theater — everything from the “broken amygdala” active in people with OCD to the mechanics of “OCD spikes.”
It’s educational, but never didactic, because we’re always rooted in her story. “I want it to function as a piece of theater because I am a theater artist,” Levine says. “And I don’t just want this to be like a TED Talk, because it’s not. But I do think that this is something that can start a lot of conversations and could be useful for a lot of people.”
This is the crux of Levine’s show: explaining the messy, complex, difficult-to-convey parts of obsessive-compulsive disorder through art. We yearn to understand how OCD functions because we yearn to understand Levine, why she acts, what drives her. This is an incredibly powerful — and rare — effect of theater. We build empathy. And with “Unstuck,” we begin to understand.
Zoe Larkin | firstname.lastname@example.org