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2018-05-01 / Shorts

Turning Illness Into Art

Director of Penn State’s School of Theatre combines drawing and performance to explore mental health
Samantha Lauriello




When he steps into the studio, William Doan reminds himself to breathe. He wants to intentionally slow life down to a state of calm, a source of power for the combination of watercolor and ink that will bring life to the thoughts he pours onto the paper in front of him. And like many artists, those thoughts are complicated.

In March, Doan’s graphic narrative essay “Is That What Depression Looks Like” was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The director of the School of Theatre at Penn State, Doan meshed personal experience, research and creativity to produce the essay that narrates his own experience with mood disorders and raises crucial questions about mental health.

“I do live with anxiety and depression,” Doan says. “I think that I’ve let go of my concerns about the stigma around mental illness and mental well-being because I am who I am and I live with these things.”
Having loved drawing his entire life, Doan says the hobby has become a form of therapy. It helps him not only express his emotions but also understand them.

After his sister suffered severe brain trauma, Doan began combining art and research to make meaning out of what his family was going through. Now, he uses the same method to produce his work on depression and anxiety.

Doan is quick to emphasize that he isn’t a psychologist. “I read all of the literature I can access and understand on mood disorders and brain injury,” he says. “I’m very interested in what we know and don’t know about the brain.”

Though he doesn’t have a professional background in mental health, Doan does have a background in theater, which he utilizes by bringing his work to the stage in the performance “My Anxiety: A Work in Progress.”

During the show, about 130 of Doan’s drawings are projected onto a wall-sized screen behind him.

“I try to let the drawings tell a lot of the story,” Doan says, “and I sort of interact as a mediator between the audience and the drawings.”

The performance is a mix of drama and comedy, Doan says, describing the show as a theatrical piece focusing on the stories behind the art.

Doan and fellow actor Tyler Sperrazza have performed the show in State College, New York and Miami and hope to take it to other cities in the future.

Through both his art and performances, Doan aims to create work that will touch those who experience it.

“A hope is if someone sees this work and engages with it in a way that makes them think, ‘You know, maybe it’s OK for me to ask for help,’” Doan says. “If it helps someone to know that someone understood how they were feeling, that connection and being connected is what I really want from my work, to make connections for me and for other people.”

Doan hopes to publish another narrative essay, “An Artist’s Look at Anxiety and Depression,” this summer. •SCM

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