Typically, the worst part of any great performance is when it’s over, but that wasn’t the case at a recent performance I attended as part of the 13th Annual First Person Arts Festival in Philadelphia. It was what happened after the curtain came down that I found most riveting: an opportunity for a profound community dialogue.

The performance featured Kathryn Erbe of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Zach Grenier of CBS’ The Good Wife,Broadway star Alex Morf, and Barrymore Award nominee Julianna Zinkel in a dramatic reading of Act III of Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night presented by First Person Arts. The reading painted a bold and intimate portrait of a family struggling under the weight of addiction – a real and important topic that affects millions of people.

The evening’s program was modeled after an innovative project from the National Institute of Drug Abuse that utilizes a reading of Act III of the play to train health professionals to recognize the signs and improve care for people with addictions, in addition to fighting the stigma surrounding these serious health issues. The Philly engagement marked the presentation of the project for the general public, and I was honored to be part of the post-performance panel along with Mural Arts’ Jane Golden, and Cherie Brummans, Executive Director of the Alliance of Community Service Providers.

With about 200 people in the audience, the program was a great example of how art can educate and engage the community about a topic that is often silenced. It was an opportunity to spur dialogue, build greater awareness of recovery services, and eliminate stigma all within a safe and supportive environment reaching community members that we otherwise may not have reached.

I often address crowds of people who are keenly interested in one or more aspects of behavioral health services. But this audience was composed of theater-lovers, and it was clear that for many who rose to speak during the community dialogue segment of the evening that it was the first time they had spoken publicly about these issues. Audience members shared about their own experiences, the experiences of their families, and many commented on how relatable the family portrayed in O’Neill’s play turned out to be. Regardless of our own respective backgrounds, the dynamics of the Irish Catholic family in Long Day’s Journey felt familiar and true. O’Neill’s portrait of a family grappling with addiction remains as insightful and relevant today as it was when it was first published in 1956.

Here at DBHIDS we see the benefit of using art as an innovative way to approach public health in Philadelphia. We believe that art can, and does, play a critical role in healing, resilience, and overall wellness and so I was grateful to First Person Arts executive director, Jamie Brunson, who had the foresight to include O’Neill’s powerful piece in this year’s festival.   The First Person Arts Festival is a one of kind celebration featuring art inspired by personal stories from leading national artists and everyday people, so we hope to continue to partner with them to reach new audiences with stories that help the public better understand behavioral health and intellectual disability issues.

Other DBHIDS arts initiatives include:
Just recently, DBHIDS hosted its first-ever art show, Art of Recovery, to recognize the talent of people who life with mental illness, addiction, and intellectual disAbility and the profound role that creative outlets can play in their journey towards recovery and resiliency.

Seven years ago, DBHIDS began a partnership with the City’s Mural Arts program to present The Porch Light Program — a groundbreaking public art approach to achieving health and wellness in Philadelphia. Porch Light works closely with communities to uplift public art as an expression of community resilience and a vehicle of personal and community healing. The murals have been proven to strengthen neighborhoods, support those in recovery, and fight stigma. To date, the program has created over 20 murals throughout the city that focus on issues related to mental health, substance use and intellectual disabilities, made possible only with the support and leadership of Philly iconoclast Jane Golden who’s vision and leadership have made this work possible. Just recently, a four-year evaluation was conducted in collaboration with partners from Yale University to address the question, ‘Can public art promote public health?’ Full findings from the study that highlight the effectiveness of Porch Light murals are available HERE.

Another compelling example of DBHIDS’ emphasis on incorporating art into our everyday work is Autumn Journey – an 8-minute short film that poetically portrays the innovative changes happening in the behavioral health field in Philadelphia. The video which was recently premiered on WHYY’s Friday Arts was created by award-winning musician and composer Leslie Burrs in collaboration with DBHIDS and tells personal stories of two Philadelphia’s pathway of recovery.

Art is one of those things that make us uniquely human. It inspires; it uplifts; it reaches out in a language all its own when words fail us, uniquely capable of conveying the complexities of our hearts and minds for all the world to see. Renowned painter Edward Hopper said, “If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” It’s no wonder then that art has, and continues to have, a powerful role in loosening the stifling grip that stigma can have on all of us in our communities and in helping to make the dream of health and wellness a reality for so many in Philadelphia.