Play Explores Mental Health and Friendship With Beloved TV Show as a Backdrop

By Gene Gillespie

I get by with a little help from my friends – The Beatles

Doesn’t everyone have that favorite book they can pick up and read a few pages, and feel the sensation of an old friend’s embrace? Or a song that helps them see hope when it feels like there is none? Or a film that provides an escape from their daily struggles when they feel they can’t continue?

The concept of art as a means of coping and consolation is central to a play being produced by UCLA Semel Institute’s Center for Health Services and Society (HSS). On October 7th and 9th, the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center’s Tamkin Auditorium will hold two performances of The One with Friends, written by HSS staff member Joseph Mango. The play follows an aspiring writer (Lucy, played by Miranda Wynne) and a struggling actor (Callum, played by Nick McLoughlin) confronting feelings of depression and isolation as they strive for personal and professional success. The play is being produced in conjunction with a pilot research study that assesses the impact of the arts on stigma and perceptions of mental health. HSS, which also helped bring the story of USC Law Professor Elyn Saks’ battle with schizophrenia to the operatic stage at UCLA in July (see Huffington Post article here), will hold this event as a part of an ongoing effort to raise community awareness and understanding of mental health through the arts.

The play is set primarily in a Santa Monica coffee shop, where Lucy is composing a script for a reunion episode of the beloved television show Friends, which aired on NBC from 1994-2004. Through Lucy’s perspective, the play explores our experience of personal tragedy, and the anxieties and uncertainties of pursuing your dreams in the face of tremendous odds. “I was so drawn to the character of Lucy, who I find both instantly relatable and hilarious in her desire to alienate others,” says director Ashley Griggs. “It has been such an exciting task to tackle a character with layers like hers; someone who is blunt and kind and cold and vulnerable, all at once.”

The other lead, Callum, suffers from clinical depression, offering a unique yet intersecting perspective to that of Lucy. Callum’s depression leaves him isolated and only after his therapist assigns him the task of approaching a stranger as part of his treatment, does he meet Lucy. They build a friendship grounded both in their personal problems, but also in their shared professional interests and aspirations, and the burgeoning hope that there are better times ahead. Chloé Hung, who plays The Model, discussed the connection between the main characters, despite and perhaps because of, their differences: “Callum and Lucy’s relation to depression is very different, but they can recognize a similar quality and relate to each other through their respective experience. The script is incredibly empathetic and emphasizes the need for one another to reach out and just listen.”

Friends is personified as an actual character in the play, and much of the emotional verve brought by the actors is derived from a deep-seated nostalgia for the show’s characters. “I think the reason this show was so successful is because the audience could find something relatable in every single one of the characters,” says Miranda Wynne, who plays Lucy.

The One with Friends aims to bring a deeper understanding of the emotional and mental challenges faced by our fellow human beings, and offers a reassurance that no one is alone. “I think art really helps mental health awareness just by bringing it to light. A lot of these things can be difficult to talk about,” says Lindsey Ford, who plays The Warm-Up Woman. “When someone on television, in a movie, or in a play talks about having suicidal thoughts or dealing with a bad depression, it not only allows others to recognize that many people deal with these difficulties, it empowers the friends and family of those individuals an entry into conversations about these types of mental health issues.”

For playwright Joseph Mango, the play is a semi-autobiographical account drawing on emotions from his angst-filled teenage years, fraught with social pressures to the distinct anxieties of young adulthood. Throughout these challenges, one television show was a constant, not subject to the rollercoaster of emotion that life can become. “In writing the play, I wanted to emphasize the important role family and friends play, as well as the arts, when a loved one is living with major depression. While everyone’s experience with depression is different, and medication and therapy aid in the journey of recovery, I always believe that the support of family, friends, and that favorite TV show, movie, or song when you need it most is just as important. Friends is something that is constant and positive and has been there for me since it debuted in 1994,” says Mango.

Exploring his personal thoughts and the role of Friends in his life allowed Mango to channel his passion for battling depression stigma through the arts. This inspired him to co-lead a pilot study to assess the impact of his play on people’s knowledge and attitude toward depression and how this might be affected by the arts. With the play, Mango and HSS hope to increase understanding of depression and to celebrate the power of the arts in promoting healing.

For more information about the play and to reserve free tickets, visit: http://www.theonewithfriends.com

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to everyone. All calls are confidential.

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Photo Credit: Elizabeth Lizaola; Caption: L-R: Nick McLoughlin, Joseph Mango, and Miranda Wynne visited the Friends’ Central Perk set on the Warner Bros. Studio Tour

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