Student’s struggle with mental illness inspires play

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Zack Burton’s own mental breakdown inspired him and his girlfriend to embark on a theatrical mission.

So was born “The Manic Monologues,” created by Burton and Elisa Hofmeister in hopes of fostering positive conversations to overcome the shame and stigma associated with mental illness.

Burton, a geology Ph.D. student at Stanford, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May 2017 after suffering his first psychotic break during his qualifying exams, undergoing “a crisis of confidence” in the aftermath. He and Hofmeister,an assistant clinical research coordinator at Stanford Medical School’s psychiatry department, wondered why they weren’t able to find any relatable and positive stories about mental illness, according to the play’s website.

The couple realized they wanted “to change the narrative around mental illness.” And so they became theater producers, hoping their play would do for mental illness what “The Vagina Monologues” did for female sexuality. “We couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, couldn’t act. But we think theater is a unique and powerful means to force an audience to confront these stories,” Burton told Stanford News.

They sought advice from theater and medical experts, and let others anonymously submit stories of true experiences with mental illness via social media and a webpage. Last May, their production of “The Manic Monologues” premiered at Stanford for three sold-out shows, with Burton one of 15 performers. Other productions followed in Des Moines, Iowa, and UCLA, garnering positive reviews from the Washington Post, NPR, CBS Radio and other media outlets.

“Our future plans are to help see this play spread across the globe—and to help communities adapt this performance to their own setting,” Burton said via email, with upcoming productions possible in several states.

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