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‘Dymphna’ explores themes of mental health and history

| Friday, March 29, 2019

Senior FTT major Zoë Usowski will present the original theatrical production “Dymphna,” which tells the story of a 1930s mental ward nurse struggling with issues of morality, for the first time Friday evening in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center as part of her senior thesis.

Usowski said she first proposed the idea behind “Dymphna” because she wanted to call attention to issues of mental health and its treatment throughout history.

“I really wanted to highlight things I felt were missing in theater,” Usowski said.

Usowski began working on “Dymphna” in February of last year while in a playwriting class taught by associate professor of Film, Television and Theatre Anne García-Romero, who later became her spring thesis advisor. Usowski said she found the playwriting process intense but rewarding.

“We spent two months just talking about characters and what I wanted from them, and their voices and how they exist in the world,” Usowski said. “I think I wrote the entire first act in one day. I just sat in Starbucks and typed.”

Usowski said she also made a deliberate choice to have “young, college-aged women at the forefront of the play,” feeling it important to create female characters who deal with issues other than romantic relationships.

Senior Teagan Earley, the actress who plays the protagonist, said she appreciated the complexity of her character.

“She is young, only 21, and new to the psych ward, and she wants so badly to make a difference in these people’s lives,” Earley said.

Earley’s character also deals with personal issues outside the psych ward, struggling to establish herself as a successful nurse to avoid being forced to quit once she gets married.

While the project is labeled a creative thesis, Usowski said the research component actually took up most of her time.

“I wanted it to be grounded in realism, so that meant I needed to do research,” Usowski said. “I found handbooks in the library that were given to asylum workers in the early 1940s, and I read over those to see the language they used. They used terms like ‘moron’ that we no longer use in defining their patients. I had a whole stack of books in my room.”

“The challenge in writing a play based on a particular time period is balancing research with writing,” García-Romero echoed.

Usowski was in charge of all the writing, directing and design for the play. The cast and crew is small — the performance will feature five character actors and a sixth actor reading stage directions, she said. “Dymphna” will also feature visual elements inspired by Usowksi’s research.

“At the performance, there will be boards featuring photos taken at asylums at the time,” Usowski said. “It’s really saddening to look at them — they’re really cramped situations, often alone.”

Despite the play’s challenging subject, Earley said she found the process of acting and rehearsing enjoyable.

“The cast and creatives were incredible to work with,” Earley said. “It’s so exciting knowing you get to be part of telling an important story for the first time.”

Overall, Usowski said she hopes the project promotes awareness of mental health issues at Notre Dame.

“Mental health care at ND can be pushed farther than its current iteration, so I just wanted to really humanize it — to make it present at the forefront of people’s minds,” Usowski said.

García-Romero agreed with Usowski and she said she hopes Notre Dame students will attend the performance to learn about the issues Usowski hopes to highlight.

“Mental health awareness is an issue that is crucial for our campus and our country,” García-Romero said.

“Dymphna” will premiere Friday at 7:00 p.m. in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (DPAC). Tickets can be purchased either at the box office in DPAC or at performingarts.nd.edu

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