“Believe it or not, I was in a shell once,” says Dorothy Plaut with a laugh. The 66-year-old was diagnosed with depression caused by a chemical imbalance in 1976. Nine years ago, after a hospital stay to treat her condition, her doctor recommended that she check out a theater workshop run by the Thresholds psychiatric rehabilitation center in Lincoln Park.

“I’ve always liked theater,” says Plaut, who has been known to describe herself as “Sarah Bernhardt reincarnated.” “Since I was a little girl I wanted to go on the stage.” Still, her condition often made it difficult for her to be enthusiastic about the unusual therapy. “I made it my business, no matter how I felt otherwise, to get to the theater project. Sometimes I had to force myself.” But “it always helped me,” she says. “When you act you forget your problems.”

There are plenty of problems the Thresholds ensemble members may want to forget. Many of these actors are living with paranoid schizophrenia, personality disorders, depression, or anxiety. Performing is a welcome outlet. “There’s something magical about acting,” says Plaut. “It really gives people with mental problems a chance to be creative.” The twice-weekly rehearsals provide both a sense of structure and an opportunity for the actors to work together as a group.

The program also gives them a chance to tell their stories, says Larry Grimm, the project’s artistic director since 1993. Each year’s performance is based on the personal experiences of members of the Thresholds rehabilitation network, which provides outpatient resources to the mentally ill. This year’s edition–the tenth-anniversary show–features stories about universal aspects of life: love, the power of hope, death, finding friends, parenthood, and dealing with the prejudices of strangers. In one skit a girl discovers a new side of the master of her Catholic school; in another someone remembers a late friend while riding the Ferris wheel on Navy Pier.

“They’re all stories that need to be told because they come from voices that frequently are not heard or are not understood enough,” says Grimm, who loves it when the ensemble takes the stage and the audience reacts with familiarity to tales told by someone who has been labeled “different.”

Making the performance open to the public helps foster a better understanding of the mentally ill, agrees assistant director Marti Szalai-Raymond, who has been working with the project for five years. “So often [the mentally ill] are put outside the community,” she says.

Plaut, who moved to Chicago from New York in 1964 and worked as a clerk in the orthopedics department at Children’s Memorial Hospital for 25 years, has experienced that sense of isolation. She says that’s why this project means so much to her. “It’s really important in today’s society, where mental illness is still scary to so many people,” she says. “It’s no more shameful or serious than having diabetes or Alzheimer’s or anything else. It’s not something you blame yourself for.”

She also just enjoys the whole experience of being onstage. When her submission about how she survived a fire in her building initially didn’t make it into this year’s lineup, she was terribly disappointed. She says she tried hard not to “get in a snit,” telling herself that it was OK that she was not going to be “in the spotlight,” but in the end she was inspired to rewrite her piece. Now Plaut tells her story from the point of view of her 18-year-old cat, Miss Kitty Meow. While she talks about the ensemble’s honesty and the poignancy of the stories they will perform, Plaut concedes she’s out for laughs too. “I guess I’m just a ham.”

Nevertheless, she is serious about the positive effect the project has had on her mental health. It helps her to push beyond the dark thoughts, she says. “Because when you’re depressed, you’re in your head. When I’m depressed, I can’t stand myself.”

An afternoon at a rehearsal helps. Going through traditional warm-up exercises, this diverse group (ten Thresholds members and two professional local actresses make up the ensemble) is obviously having a great time. Vocalizing, throwing their arms and legs around at a frenzied pace, making eye contact, and playing together in ten-second improvisations, they laugh and cheer each other on. Any accomplishment or moment of enthusiasm is recognized with generous clapping from the entire group.

But it’s the applause of the audience that Plaut is anxiously awaiting. “What makes you come back is the audience. The most wonderful part of theater is that you’re being heard.”

The Magical Menagerie of Memories, Thresholds’ tenth annual theater-arts project production, opens Monday, August 21, and runs Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays through August 30 at 8 PM at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont. Opening-night benefit tickets are $30; tickets for the regular run are $10. Call 773-281-3800, ext. 2470. –Jenn Goddu

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.