Teens and parents can have trouble communicating under the simplest circumstances. Throw in a pandemic that postpones or prevents face-to-face conversations, and everything gets more difficult.
When the online production of the new autobiographical play “Let Go of Me” opens Thursday evening, Live Arts’ audience members will be able to follow the challenges that a mother with bipolar disorder and her trans, non-binary teenager face in their search for connection — as well as the added complexities of the parent-child dynamic when the roles can get blurred.
“It speaks to how we hold relationships in a greater sense,” said playwright Kelley Van Dilla, a local theater and film director.
The cast features Marty Moore as Daphne, Van Dilla as Ashley (Now) and Olivia Ramirez-Weaver as Ashley (Then). The Chorus includes Sam Fisher, Mattea Gaines, Sharon Lawler, Aiyana Marcus, Eric Ramirez-Weaver, Liz Ramirez-Weaver and Elizabeth Rose.
Van Dilla is directing at Live Arts for the first time, and they feel surrounded by a creative and compassionate team.
“I just want to express gratitude to the amazing group of collaborators who are telling this story with me. I felt so held and supported by this group of artists and advocates,” they said. “To act as myself has been a very healing experience.”
The New Mexico native and Western Albemarle High School graduate penned their first draft of the play in 2017, and “a lot has happened in my life in the past four years,” they said.
The limitations of rehearsing and performing at a distance changed the way “Let Go of Me” originally was going to look and sound.
“I thought that we’d have seven actors, lots of dance and movement, and a soundscape,” Van Dilla said. Instead, look for a combination of pre-recorded and live performances that tells the story.
Conversations often continue through voicemails. Buddhist teachings offer solace. And a story as old as time — a child having to be the adult at baffling and often heartbreaking moments — unfolds as a child learns to protect their own heart while caring for their parent.
The physical distance measures that needed to be observed for everyone’s safety during the pandemic kept the performers well aware of the challenges that healthy communication endures even in the best of times. Add in the difficulty level of having tough conversations in the presence of mental illness without wounding each other, and of protecting one’s own heart and feelings in the process, and a personal story grows into a universal cry for listening and understanding.
“This play is really of its time,” Van Dilla said. “We had to rehearse over Zoom. The ways that we’ve had to do this play reinforce what this play is about.”
Making sense of the communication issues between Van Dilla and their mother simply couldn’t happen in a vacuum.
“Processing, for me, happens in conversation,” Van Dilla said. “It doesn’t happen by myself. It doesn’t happen only in isolation.”
Writing about a disagreement between Van Dilla and their mother and then performing it allowed Van Dilla to see the events through an actor’s point of view. Taking an analytical approach and savoring a bit of distance allowed them to come away with new insights.
“Acting out as myself my writing out of a fight I’ve had with my mom is very healing,” they said.
Audience members may wonder how Van Dilla’s mother feels about the airing of such deep issues.
“I feel very lucky to have a mom who says she wants me to tell our story,” Van Dilla said. “She’s a very gracious and loving mother who supports my art.” They said their mother supports “any opportunity where we can share a story about a parent with bipolar.”
Families who’ve had trouble communicating may want to watch the play together to find inspiration and support for deeper conversations, but Van Dilla said it’s always important to keep loved ones’ emotional needs in mind.
“Anything that deals with trauma can be triggering and difficult to watch,” they said.
On the other hand, seeing ways in which other people have handled grief and trauma can be comforting or helpful, they said.
“I hope it can open up conversations,” Van Dilla said. “I’m trying very much to tell the story from my perspective and not generalize about any illness.”
Look for the study guide at livearts.org. It offers a glossary of terms, a synopsis, interviews and a list of resources to help families continue important conversations no matter what the pandemic throws their way.
“Let Go of Me” will be livestreamed on a private Zoom webinar at 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Light House Studio is providing technical assistance.
Tickets are available on a “pay-what-you-can” basis, with a suggested price of $20 per household. For tickets and details, go to livearts.org. If you need technical help, check out the online How to Watch guide or email firstname.lastname@example.org.