Panther Hollow - A comedy about clinical depression. No, really.
An Interview with David Lee White
Indie Theater Now asked David Lee White a few questions about this upcoming event.
What real person/event is the subject of this play, and why did you select this?
Panther Hollow is an autobiographical one-man show. So the real person is me. Specifically, it's about my struggle with clinical depression back when I was twenty-five. But I should very quickly add BUT IT'S FUNNY! I MEAN FOR IT TO BE FUNNY! before everyone stops reading. Because honestly, who wants to sit through a story about a 25 year old guy in the 90s who wants to kill himself? "Aren't there any post-modern deconstructions of American popular culture that we can go see instead? I mean, Sheesh..." I've always wanted to do a one person show. And since my late-40s were looming and I was raising a toddler and I was literally sleepy every second of the day, I thought "Why not lump one of the most difficult forms of theatre right on top of that mess!" Actually, I've always been very open about that part of my life and for years, friends have come to me for advice and help. So I figured now was the time to put it out there. Mental illness is still a taboo subject and people still get all freaked out about depression and going to therapy and taking drugs and everything related to that. Plus, it's always been a goal of mine to piss off Tom Cruise so if anyone wants to bring him to a performance, I promise to let him moderate a talk back. The short version of my story is that when I was 25 I was living in this really creepy, neighborhood called Panther Hollow located in the middle of Pittsburgh. Bizarre things happened there, including the time I found the body of a young man who had hanged himself. This happened just as my own depression was starting to kick in so it was a real trigger moment for me. So the show chronicles the events leading to my breakdown, the process it took for me to get help and what I learned about life when it was all over. And I talk very frankly about the bizarre thoughts and embarrassing behavior that goes along with being chronically depressed. That's not gonna get you to come and see the show is it? ALSO I TALK ABOUT SEX! There. That oughtta do it.
What’s the playwright’s obligation as a reporter of fact? How do you figure out what’s actually “true” (or can you even do that)? Can stretching/shaping the facts ever be justified?
Depends on what your goal is, right? If you're trying to mobilize people for a social cause or encouraging advocacy, you can't fudge the facts. Ever. The moment you edit the facts, you create propaganda. But if you're telling a personal story, some bending or twisting may be necessary in order to communicate an emotional reality. Take the case of the movie ARGO. Remember how everyone got bent out of shape because the filmmakers tacked a suspenseful chase scene on the end of it that didn't happen in real life? It may not have been factual, but it may have portrayed the feelings of the participants involved in a way that wouldn't have been possible if we had just seen them boarding their plane without incident. In my case, I didn't invent any bogus facts. Everything story I tell is true and it all happened to me. However, I did juggle things around a little, chronologically, and combined several people into one person...stuff like that. My goal was to accurately reflect my emotional journey in a way that was easy to communicate with the audience. If I spent time explaining why I went to three different therapists, that might not have worked. So instead, I just combined them all into one.
What kinds of research did you do in the creation of this play? What sources did you consult – books, movies, memoirs, websites, etc.?
Thankfully, even though I was suicidally depressed at the time, I kept a journal and I still have it. It's not a very factual journal. It was more like little sketches and poems and things like that. But it had enough information to help me recreate the timeline and the events. I also contacted all my friends back then and asked them questions like "Hey, remember that time when I was a huge asshole to you? Can you tell me everything you remember about it?" They were usually pretty happy to help. I reread Prozac Nation which was HUGE back in the 90s. I owe Elizabeth Wurtzel at least as much as I owe my therapists.
Did your feelings about this topic change as you created this play? If so, in what way? What did you learn about yourself in this process?
Oh, man...YES. Honestly, I think I underestimated the universality of the story. I thought it would be too narcissistic or navel-gazing (I still don't truly understand what that phrase means) but everyone who reads or sees it winds up telling me how much they relate to it. Which makes me wonder why we don't talk about this kind of stuff more. Millions of people go through clinical depression. It's very common. But people are so scared to talk about it. And I get it - it's a terrifying, vulnerable experience. And there's so much guilt involved - especially for those of us who don't seem to have a valid reason for having experienced trauma. I had a very nice upbringing and a great family. I never wanted for anything. But I was also raised in one of those communities where Evangelical Christianity seemed to have their tentacles everywhere. We thought we were diverse because our group of friends included Lutherans AND Methodists. I never thought that my personal experience was all that worthy of discussion. Thankfully, people from all walks of life have really encouraged me to continue working on this show so I have. Also, I didn't realize how much more healing I needed to do in regards to this period in my life. I was still so embarrassed by so much of it. But working on the show has really made me say "Oh, the hell with it. Who cares?" which is great.
Is there a particular playwriting school/style/genre that you particularly subscribe to? If you had to describe the style of this play in just a few words, what would you say?
Normally,when I write plays that aren't about me and have more than one actor, I write plays with John Guare and Chris Durang and Arthur Kopit in mind. I love a lot of different writers, but those were the three that I grew up reading. With Panther Hollow, I was really inspired by several of the solo shows that I had seen or worked on at Passage Theatre, where I'm the Associate Artistic Director. Martin Dockery is an extraordinary solo artist. Mike Dugan is a terrific comic who's been around for awhile and does a show called "Men Fake Foreplay." Both those guys do work that is both hilarious and honest. But my biggest influences were probably Rick Reynolds and Lauren Weedman. I don't know Reyolds personally but he did a show back in the 90s called "Only the Truth is Funny." It aired on HBO and I must have watched it a dozen times. It was this breathtaking combination of storytelling, stand-up comedy and gut wrenching tragedy. I knew that was the style I wanted for my show. Lauren Weedman's show "Bust" was another big one for me. Lauren's shows are amazing - totally different from mine in style. But she's the most honest writer/performer I've ever seen. She turns her biggest embarrassments into her best friends. I love that!
posted September 18, 2015
David Lee White