Fine Arts and Theater Promote Recovery and Reduce Stigma

by Diana Nielsen


We were treated to an in-house fine art show and a comic performance by the Second Step Players at the annual meeting of The Mental Health Coalition in Rochester. This organization promotes empowerment through advocacy, education, training and advancing the consumer voice. Both productions were delightful and presented in a professional manner.

The Impressions Gallery of the MHC is curated by Vickie Porter who is a resource developer there.  She worked with the gallery on a volunteer basis before accepting a staff position. After the pieces in this show entitled Reflections were juried, Vickie helped design, print and send out invitations to the show. She created a program which included a detailed map of the fine art.  Several framed pieces were sold at a silent auction.  The results were outstanding in both the work itself as well as the show. Many talented artists displayed their beautiful pieces in different media.  Artwork that wasn’t either sold or picked up by the artists was put on display at the Rehabilitation Building at the Rochester Psychiatric Center.  Twelve different organizations also provided space to hang artwork.

 Vickie is also an artist.  She has done felt wall hangings, trinket bags, handmade greeting cards, polymer clay figures, jewelry, book boxes, bloc prints and rubber stamping.  Her own style showcases her ability to use many mediums in each individual project.  This capacity to pull many things together reflects much more than just her art style.  She also reorganized and advanced the development of the Resource Library.  She designed a project of decorated kiosks to hold the MHC newsletter around town.

After dinner, the Second Step Players took the stage. They were sensational.  The Players perform comedy and drama communicating the experience of being labeled and living with a mental illness. Since 1985, they have performed for audiences all over the United States.  More than 50 consumers assist in writing, producing, performing and developing their show.

 They opened with a little audience participation warm-up, and then performed one zany skit after the other.   Their humorous skits reveal what life is often like on an inpatient unit, how medications are often over-glorified and how parents and other relatives can avoid and hide from their own fears and emotions surrounding mental illness within the family.  These topics are often hard to face.   Using comedy and non-threatening language in a comfortable environment, the Second Step Players combat stigma and educate the public in a way that is easy for everyone to enjoy. It is easy to see that the players are comfortable with and love what they do.

One of the shortest and funniest skits was simply one actor having “mental floss” for her brain.  It entered one ear and came out the other. There was a longer country and western type vignette called “Return to Dysfunction Junction” as well as six other well conceived and acted skits.  At the end of the performance, the Players welcomed questions about the show and their personal experiences as consumers.   I was surprised to find out that the most common diagnosis of these actors who take the stage in front of many people is anxiety.  They agree that being part of the Second Step Players is a wonderful form of therapy. They support and encourage one another and  recover together. 

Their full scale yearly public show is held in the New London, Connecticut area where they are based. It runs three nights and is always sold out.  They also perform touring shows throughout the country.  The New Haven Register called The Second Step Players production “A Theater of Courage.”  Other comments about the troop include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Meets Saturday Night Live”  from The Hartford Courant.  “Acting gives me a chance to express myself  . . .  to prove that I’m alive,” says Warren Thurlow, a Second Step Player.  “The skits are performed by people who have been there.”  “Together my son and I got help and support for his illness thanks to a production I saw by The Second Step Players.”  Letter to the Editor, Norwich Bulletin.  

The actors are not ashamed to admit they have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and dissociative identity disorder.  The Kennebec Journal in  Augusta, Maine wrote “The players use comedy to convey the serious message that prejudice, ignorance and stigma hurt.”   Their watchword is  . . . “because creativity heals.”   They have performed for schools and police departments. They also  received the 2003 award for Outstanding Media Presentation by the American Psychological Association. 

They demonstrated to the police department what it is like to hear voices in their heads using a curriculum by Dr. Patricia Deegan. When a police officer confronts someone, he usually speaks loudly, talks fast or shines a flashlight in the person’s face.  For someone who hears voices, it’s difficult in a conversation to distinguish which voice is real and make a coherent response. Police officers are given headphones to listen to tapes of different voices simulating the experience.  Feedback included  “It is one of the best programs we ever did.” 

They also visited students speaking about myths concerning their particular illnesses.  The players asked the students to imagine being stuck in an elevator with a person who has just said he is mentally ill.  One student said “I learned that stereotypes are not always accurate.” “ It must be hard for parents to admit their child has mental illness problems or they could just think it’s a behavior problem. It’s sad.”

 If you would like to learn more about the Second Step Players, please visit their website at or call Becca, their talented emcee at (860)887-0014. I enjoyed the entire performance. If you can get to Connecticut or any other of their shows, you will be glad that you made the trip.