By ERIC SCHELKOPF
In an all too familiar story, "Unplugged: A Survivor's Story in Scenes & Songs" tells the tale of a 27-year-old rock star struggling with depression and post-traumatic stress in the wake of childhood sexual abuse.
The musical, based on a novel written by Evanston author/performer Paul McComas, will be presented Oct. 22 at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Doors open at noon and the show starts at 1 p.m.
Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 the day of the show, available by going to www.citywinery.com. Eighty-five percent of proceeds from ticket sales will benefit RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)’s National Sexual Assault Hotline, and The Kennedy Forum, which works to eliminate the stigma around mental illness and enforce parity for behavioral healthcare.
Playing the part of lead character Dayna Clay is co-creator Maya Kuper. The album is being released on CAUDog Records, a label connected to Chicago Acoustic Underground.
I had the chance to talk to Paul and Maya about the project.
Q – Do you feel yourself identifying with this character?
Maya – I have found myself identifying more and more with this character. I didn't at first, and I've been working on this character for a few years now.
Dayna Clay has some pretty serious mental health issues, and she's also a trauma survivor. She was a survivor of childhood rape. What I've learned from working on this character is that there are parts of her experience that I can relate to.
The idea of being in a relationship where you are not treated with respect is something that many, many people can relate with. It doesn't have to domestic abuse or sexual violence, but emotional abuse is I think way more common than a lot of people realize because it's enough not talked about.
And a lot of times people don't realize it's happening to them. And so, that part of Dayna is something that I relate to. And the parts of Dayna that I don't have experience with, like the fact that she's suicidal and is dealing with serious post traumatic stress, those are things that I've learned a lot about from working on this character.
I lost a friend to suicide a few years ago. I almost feel like everyone knows someone or has someone in their circle – a family member, a friend, a colleague, who either has been suicidal or they lost somebody to suicide.
And it's often not talked about. It's often swept under the rug. There's the fear that talking about it can actually push somebody over the edge.
But in my opinion, we need to talk about it more. Because if it's true that one in five Americans deals with a mental health issue in any given year, than it's an epidemic.
And it's something we need to talk about more and more. Because the only way we are going to reduce that stigma is by speaking about it out loud.
And so the more we talk about it, the more we make it OK to talk about.
Q – How did the death of Kurt Cobain affect you and inspire you?
Paul – I was a fan of the man and of the music. There seemed to be a lot of talk about the heroin abuse, as if he had died of an overdose. He put a gun to his head. The heroin abuse was a symptom of the depression that killed him.
I founded this music project called Rock Against Depression with some other musician friends. We all felt like honoring Kurt while at the same time trying to steer young fans away from the path that he took.
Halfway through the five-year run of this project, it occurred to me that I was addressing these issues through someone else's work, but haven't done so through my own writing and music and performing. And that was sort of the genesis of "Unplugged."
Q – Is Dayna Clay supposed to be a female version of Kurt Cobain?
Paul – Not really. She's supposed to be her own person, and she is.
But Kurt was definitely an inspiration, and you can see the elements, I think, of him in her, in terms of attitude and excessive empathy regarding the pain of other people, which is a classic symptom for some people struggling with depression. I say this as someone who does struggle with depression. I say this as a depression survivor myself.
After I had recovered from depression, I started working on the novel. His death was a major inspiration for writing the book.
I wanted to write about someone similar, not the same but similar, who was able to step back from the brink in a way that he was not permitted to do. She has an opportunity that he does not get.
Q – As far as putting the novel to music, did you always envision that you would be putting on a show like this?
Paul – Maya was the one who said she always wanted to write a musical. I was working on a song in this character's voice while I was working on the novel.
I didn't have in mind a full-fledged 90-minute two act musical. This is a whole other animal, what we're going here and now.
Maya – I would say that it started out as what you might call a song cycle, with songs that were written in the voice of the character. When I started working with Paul on this material about four years ago, I had this rich novel of source material to draw from and these ideas to fill in the blanks.
Q – Even though there is a 20-year age difference between the two of you, it seems like you guys have a musical kinship. Is that right?
Paul – She's my kid sister that I never had. I was the youngest of four and I always wanted a kid sister. It took a while, but I finally got one nine years ago.
Maya – Brother and sister is a good way to describe it, because we do pick fights all the time. He has things that I wouldn't have thought of, and I have things that he wouldn't have thought of, and that's why it's a good collaboration. We feel in the blanks for each other.
Q – What would you like people to get out of the project?
Maya – What I want people to get out of this show is that it is OK to talk about mental health issues, it's OK to talk about traumatic events in your past. And what's more, it's good to talk about them. It's healing to talk about them.
It's necessary to talk about them in order to reduce the stigma and raise awareness. We'll never get better if we do not speak out loud.