–Solo performer Leah Harris responds to some questions from DC Theatre Scene–
Tell us about the moment where you said to yourself: “I just have to do this!”
I’ve been a poet and spoken word artist for many years, as well as a mental health advocate who always told my story behind the safety of the podium. But I was always intimidated at the thought of making the leap into storytelling and solo performance. Then, about five years ago I saw a one-woman show, and I was so jealous. I realized that my “jealousy” was actually a deep desire to do it myself. So I began to study storytelling to prepare myself for solo performance, first with local storyteller and actress Laura Zam, and then with Story District.
Why this play now?
I was taking classes with Story District and I had this beloved, wonderful, encouraging teacher and mentor, John Kevin Boggs. He said to me in 2013, “Leah, you have a solo show in you, and I want to direct you.” I didn’t feel quite ready at the time, so I didn’t jump at his offer. Then, in 2015, the community lost Kevin tragically and unexpectedly to cancer. After I got over the shock of his passing, I said to myself, “Life is so damn short. If not now, when? I have to do this.”
What story are you telling?
This show is my way of grappling with the legacy of mental health issues, addiction, and psychological trauma in my “typical” American-Jewish family. It’s really tracing my relationship to the two most important women in my family: my mother and maternal grandmother. It’s the story of what it was like to be born to a mother with schizophrenia, who was consumed with visions of imaginary Nazi oppressors. What it was like to be removed from her custody at age five, and to be raised by my deeply neurotic (but undiagnosed) grandmother. The show depicts the turning point when I began to recover and heal from my own mental health struggles, addictions, and suicidal tendencies. It’s a story of overcoming and finding joy and purpose.
What have you been learning about yourself during rehearsals?
I’ve been learning what an intense emotional toll a solo show takes, especially if it grapples with deeply personal issues. That being said, it’s been beyond cathartic to embody my story as performance. The experience has worked a very deep alchemy on me that I’m still processing. It’s also been so fun to mine some of my very tragic life experiences for the humor. My director and dramaturg Regie Cabico, has been an invaluable partner in helping me to bring out the comic absurdity of it all for the stage. The laughter has been SO healing for me, and I hope it will be for the audience as well.
If you won a Tony for this show, who would you thank?
I would first thank Regie Cabico, friend, director, midwife, and absorber of all my neurotic fears. He has been by my side since this show was an embryo, and has seen me through the entire “birthing” process. Eternally thankful to Story District for its support of baby storytellers like me. It’s the most nurturing arts community ever to exist.
And of course, I would thank the late John Kevin Boggs, my beloved, departed mentor and teacher. Finally, this show would not be possible without my dear departed grandmother, Sylvia, and my late mother, Gail. They both provided me with enough artistic fodder for a lifetime.
When the performance is over, what do you want the audience feeling or thinking about?
I want the audience to know that mental health issues, addictions, and trauma are not destiny. I want them to feel the highs and lows of my personal struggle, but to know that my story is not especially unique. We are deeply resilient beings. Our brains are neuroplastic. People can and do heal from all manner of traumas and mental health struggles.
I’d like them to be thinking about their own inherited family traumas and toxic patterns — and how they can be part of breaking those cycles. I also would like them to think about and feel gratitude for the strengths and gifts that have been passed down to them through their families as well. It’s almost always a mix of both – pride and pain, isn’t it?
Leah Harris is a mental health and suicide prevention advocate, poet, and storyteller who has performed her true stories live in DC with Story District, Better Said than Done, Sparkle, and La Ti Do. She is a featured poet in Alix Olson’s anthology Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution. Leah’s story is featured in the upcoming feature-length documentary about suicide, The S Word, and she is also an advisor to the project. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, Truthout, and The Philadelphia Enquirer. She has been a guest on several radio shows including WHYY Radio Times, The Trauma Therapist Podcast, The Grass Gets Greener, Connect the Dots, and The Marilu Henner Show. www.leahidaharris.com
Aliens, Nazis, and Angels
July 9 — July 23, 2016
1433 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
Show details and tickets