Time simultaneously rolls on and stands still in “Until We Get it Right,” a senior thesis staged reading written and directed by Natalie Sacks ’14. Transitioning back and forth between three key time periods in the history of attitudes toward depression—1891, 1965, and 2014—the play paints a poignant image of the timeless nature of this struggle. Anna, Maggie, and Jamie inhabit entirely different eras, but their common battle with depression transcends time and place to reveal nearly identical undertones of fear and isolation.
With three actors playing multiple roles, as well as Justin Greene ’16 playing a doctor in each time period, the play explores both the internal journeys of these characters and their complex relationships with loved ones. Through their stories, the play examines the common threads of their shared experience, but it also portrays the slow steps of progress that provide a glimpse of hope for the future. The Argus sat down with writer and director Sacks and actors Louisa Ballhaus ’16, Dylan Penn ’15, Gwendolyn Rosen ’15, and Greene to talk about the inspiration for this project, the collaborative nature of senior thesis readings, and the difficulty of representing depression onstage.
The Argus: What inspired you to take on the difficult topic of depression for your senior thesis?
Natalie Sacks: When I was trying to think about what I wanted to write my thesis about, I tried to think of something that summed up my whole experience these past four years, something big that has happened during this time. It ended up not being anything that’s happened here specifically. A lot of my friends and family over the past few years have been diagnosed with depression. For some of them we’ve seen it coming; some were completely out of the blue. For me, it was a realization that [depression] could be anywhere and that people are fallible. Looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, I wanted to try to figure out how I could understand this experience, how friends and family can find a way in to what is a very personal experience.
A: You touch upon the timeless nature of these experiences by transitioning through three different time periods. Was there a reason for the particular time periods that you chose?
NS: When I was abroad last spring, I took a fabulous class called Madness and Medicine in Modern Britain, which is where a lot of the historical elements are coming from. Psychology has oscillated a lot between being very medical and very Freudian and based on your past experiences. All three of the time periods that we are looking at are very focused on the medical. There’s the just-before-Freud moment in the earliest time period, and the Valium craze, and then present day. I was interested in seeing how those were different and what they had in common.
A: Over the different time periods, you do see progress in attitudes toward depression, but you also see a lot of parallels. Do you believe that progress has been made?
NS: I think there’s definitely some progress. For instance, we’ve known since about the 1980s that the idea of not having enough serotonin is not actually the full explanation for depression. But people are still struggling, and so much of psychiatry is based on what we can get drugs to fix, so what I wanted to show, especially with the doctor scenes, is yes, things are getting better, especially with how much we trust the patient to articulate their own experiences, but obviously there’s so much we still don’t know.
A: [To Ballhaus, Penn, and Rosen] You fluctuated very quickly between playing a character struggling with depression and playing a character that had no idea how to relate to that experience. Was it difficult to shift between those different mindsets?
Louisa Ballhaus: I actually enjoyed shifting between characters, especially when I was going from someone like Anna, who is in a very quiet depressed state, to someone like Emily, who had all this energy. It made me able to jump into that character more because there was such a stark contrast. For the characters that are struggling from depression, like Anna, there’s a very clear timeline. She’s getting worse over the course of the play, and it can be difficult to be in these other characters and then come back and try to remember what phase of her depression she’s in, what she’s been through at that point and trying to hold on to a normal character arc the way you would if you were [playing just that character]. That was the challenge, but it was a lot of fun to be able to do three different sides of it.
Gwen Rosen: I think it was interesting that I’m consistently a guardian, mother figure. Our ages stay pretty consistent throughout, and just thinking about how on paper, these characters would look so similar, but they’re all so different and it’s mainly because of their mental state, and then also the time period affecting how that mental state is being handled, not only by themselves but by the people around them and their doctors. I think it was helpful to make those contrasts and think about what these people look like on paper and how they actually are functioning in their lives.
Dylan Penn: Going between Tom and Matthew was easier. They have many similarities, whereas playing a character with depression is much more difficult. How do you play depression? That is something that I’ve really struggled with. You can’t pull away from the other actor because that would destroy the scene. You can’t be so far away that there’s no interaction. And I found that to be a real challenge.
GR: Something that I’ve been thinking about the whole time is [how] depression is such a personal experience, so taking these broad generalizations of what we know about this particular mental illness and then trying to apply it to this specific person and thinking about what that means for them…I’m very interested to see audience reactions to it, because it’s really personal to be like, this is what I feel like this person feels…It’s tricky.
A: [to Greene] What was it like to play the same role [of the doctor] consistently through the different time periods?
Justin Greene: It was definitely a struggle to embody the role of the doctor. The transcendence of the doctor throughout, despite the changing technologies, was more difficult. I’m still the same person despite these different relationships, different socio-cultural norms, different technologies, so it was very difficult to ground the character somehow.
NS: These guys were with me from the beginning of the semester, and they got a final script during spring break. During the whole first half of the semester we were working on the script, and on things that didn’t quite make sense, and one of the things that happened was the doctor developing more of a personality as opposed to just being the textbook spouting out the different treatments.
A: Did you see anything in the way that the roles were played that added new dimensions to the script that you hadn’t seen or that changed your perspective in any way?
NS: I think that one of the biggest things for me, seeing it up onstage, were things that were actually funny that I was not expecting to be funny, and just how strong the chemistry was between the actors. That brought so much more to the script than me just looking at words on the page.
GR: It’s always so cool to be with someone who’s worked on this for so long in so many different stages, and come in when it’s not done. Any other time you do a show that’s already printed, you can’t change anything and it’s exactly as is, and that’s limiting in a lot of ways. Especially to have someone like Natalie—and everyone else I’ve worked with on campus has been the same way—who is just very welcoming to new ideas, because that’s how theater grows. It’s good for all of us to see the characters on the page and how they’ve grown until now.
JG: It’s really interesting, because I usually think of the script as the actor’s blueprint, so it was really cool to cultivate the architecture on the page and let it flourish into beautiful buildings.
“Until We Get It Right” will be staged on Friday, April 25 and Saturday, April 26 at 8 p.m. in the CFA Theater Studios.