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The Intersection

[Emotions] Death-defying

Through play, students hope to reduce teenage suicide

Damon Hodge

Dillon’s eyes narrow. He scrunches his face. It hurts to think. The voices in his head are running him ragged, making him impulsive, despondent, tunnel-visioned. Should he kill himself? Suicide will bring closure, end the pain.

One voice says to do it. Another encourages him to hold on. Others just confuse him. What’s he got to live for? No one knows what he’s going through. Who can help? He screams.

“Okay, move to the Mayflower scene!” comes the voice from a half-open door leading to the Liberty High School theater. It belongs to theater department director Sharon Chadwick. She’s alternating between watching her class and supervising nearly a dozen costumed students practicing a play in the lobby.

The teenage actors and actresses shuffle around to set up the Mayflower scene, one of the last in Sleepwalk, Emmy-winning playwright William Mastrosimone’s intense, 40-minute play exploring teen suicide through the dream of lead character Dillon (played by senior Rob Panganiban). Mayflower (senior Sarah Misch) is one of the benevolent personalities inside Dillon’s confused head.

She calls him Dills and Dill Pickle. She thinks she can smile him out of his depression. She can’t. She grows desperate. She asks him to pinky promise that he won’t hurt himself. He can’t. Her face reddens and her eyes water.

Cut. Time to return to class.

•••••

Fairly intense for a high school play.

Topical and emotional, teen suicide is also personal for Liberty students; two of their peers have committed suicide in the last four years, counselor Susan Sawyer says.

More than a dozen students throughout the district have killed themselves in recent years, she says. “They’re not killing themselves on campus,” says school spokesman David Sheehan, who couldn’t confirm the number. Rosemary Virtuoso, a coordinator with the district’s Department of Student Threat Evaluation and Crisis Response, says there were nine suicides last year. “One is enough.”

Nevada leads the nation in teen suicides and—this is no surprise—Clark County leads Nevada. Suicide accounts for about 20 percent of all teen deaths statewide, according to the Nevada Kids County child welfare survey.

The county’s Child Death Review Team reported 11 suicides last year. Created by legislative mandate in 1992 to examine abuse and neglect issues, the team also concentrates on reducing risk factors.

When Chadwick first considered bringing Sleepwalk to campus, she knew the play would challenge her students. They’d have to plumb their emotional depths, she thought, but they were mature and could handle it. Only advanced theater students could audition. Prep time was intense. She coached and coached. “Wield your emotions but keep control.”

Then she flipped the script.

“She took us to places we didn’t want to go, to things in our personal lives we didn’t want to think about or want anyone to know about,” says David Harris, 17, a senior whose Rockstar character is a sometime friend, sometime foe of Dillon’s. “There was a lot of crying. It was scary. We had to become part of the character but not let the character become a part of us.”

A letter went home to parents of juniors and seniors. Trial run-throughs of the play for screening purposes ran September 24-26. Audience briefings preceded each play.

Debriefings got personal. Students were asked: What pains you: school, family problems, the death of a loved one? Have you ever felt like Dillon? Has a friend expressed emotions similar to Dillon’s?

Dillon challenged Panganiban in a way that his last role, Bert Healy in Annie, didn’t and couldn’t. Chadwick pulled emotions out of him, told him to tap into his personal pain and channel that anguish into character. Exhausting, he says. The play has awakened his awareness. Now he listens with an attentive ear to what his friends say, cognizant of dark moods or sullen talk. “If you see the symptoms, maybe you can help,” he says.

Student reaction has been mostly positive. Harris recently encouraged a depressed friend to talk with a teacher. The mother of a student who committed suicide attended. She was happy teenagers were taking on such a deep subject. Chadwick wants to take the show to other schools.

Officials at Basic High and Boulder City High have already expressed interest.

•••••

Rachel Torres is crying loudly. Her character (Inner Child) wants to keep Dillon trapped in a cycle of despondency. Gold chain-wearing, fast-rapping Amygdala (senior Jordan Christie) pushes Dillon to end it. Jennifer Rodriguez (dual roles as the music teacher and the back-up Conscience, a Puritan whose motives seem suspect) watches, impressed. The play is good, the acting powerful. For her, this is personal: A friend of a friend committed suicide in Columbus, Georgia.

“People don’t really want to commit suicide,” Rodriguez, a junior, says. “We need people to help people in trouble. We don’t know if these people who commit suicide will be the next president or Nobel winners. We need everyone.”

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