Interview by Leah Alexandra
Coming May 21, 2014 to NYC is a musical theater event that uses real people’s journeys with mental health as inspiration. Featuring Broadway talent Nick Cearley, Brian Charles Rooney, Becca Ayers, and more, Sing Away The Stigma is sure to entertain, start conversation, and surprise audiences.
I grew up loving musicals so much and as soon as I heard about Rachel Kunstadt’s production, Sing Away The Stigma, I thought, I have to talk to this girl! An MFA candidate in musical theater writing at NYU-Tisch, Rachel grew up in Westchester County, New York and received her bachelor’s degree from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, with a concentration in how the “American Dream” is explored, demystified, and challenged in musical theater.
In this compelling interview, Rachel shares her own recovery journey, the process of creating a musical, and her take on mental health stigma.
Leah Alexandra: Can you tell me a little bit about what Sing Away The Stigma is?
Rachel Kunstadt: Sing Away The Stigma is a concert that’s going to be on May 21,2014 at 54 Below, which is in Midtown, New York City. I’ve interviewed about a dozen people who have some sort of mental illness, or are related to someone who has either one or more diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illnesses. So it’s just their journey and their experiences, submitted online through an anonymous survey. Then I turned these stories over to emerging musical theater writers, most of whom are alumni or current students of my graduate program. The writers are currently turning those stories into songs. So, by the concert, I’ll have about a dozen original songs written either from the perspective of someone who has a mental illness, or a person who has someone close to them who has a mental illness. And then Broadway singers are going to interpret and perform these songs in concert. We’re raising money for Bring Change 2 Mind, which is an organization working to help erase the stigma of mental illness and we’re looking to sort of just open up the dialogue, open up the conversation, and use musical theater to help do that.
Leah Alexandra: It’s such a wonderful idea, and I’m curious about where the inspiration came from for you?
Rachel Kunstadt: Okay, well, it’s the weirdest thing. Someone I barely know was fired from her job for her mental illness. She was having panic attacks at work and was fired. My friend was a coworker of hers and told me what happened . . . I had met this person a couple times, and I just felt so bad because I have panic attacks and I’ve suffered from panic disorder for almost fifteen years. It hit so close to home, that I was just like, I have to do something about this because it’s not okay.
Leah Alexandra: Totally. I love that something negative around stigma came up for you and now we’re having this amazing, great big production of creativity and theater and song. Can you tell me a little bit about how we got from point A to point B?
Rachel Kunstadt: I’ve produced a couple other concerts. There’s one benefit concert that I produce annually called Broadway Sings for PKD, which raises money for the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, and my father has PKD, which is a disease that causes cysts in the kidneys and causes complete renal failure. My dad was on dialysis for thirteen years before getting a dual heart-kidney transplant two summers ago. The idea for Broadway Sings for PKD came to me when he was in the hospital waiting for a transplant. I knew that the Broadway community is amazing. There are benefit concerts happening every night, because people will use their literal voices to make change and to do good for the world.
Sing Away The Stigma performer Brian Charles Rooney
Leah Alexandra: Wonderful. I would love to know what gets you about musicals — what’s the hook that gets you excited to devote so much of your creative life to musical-land?
Rachel Kunstadt: So I grew up an hour from the city so my mom used to take my sister and I into New York City to see Broadway shows since I was a kid. I remember seeing my first Broadway show when I was seven, which was The King and I. I just started seeing these shows regionally, like the regional Westchester Broadway Theater, and then kids shows, high school shows, Broadway shows, and I remember seeing Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun in 2000. I had seen a couple Broadway shows before, but that show made me fall in love with musical theater. I mean the opening song is “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and it’s really so true. It was amazing and it was just magical how everything came together and then Bernadette Peters came out in her grand entrance and everyone applauded, and I was like, “I have to do this.”
So in middle school and in summer camp, I was an actor in shows. I was never very good, I mean, I sang a little bit, I didn’t really dance, I could act a little bit. But then in high school I started discovering writing cause I’d started getting more panic attacks and my anxiety got worse and I started getting depressed and writing was definitely an outlet for me. In college I started writing musicals, sort of, I mean I never had anyone to write the music, so I have lot of lyrics that just have never been set to music. I wrote Grey’s Anatomy: The Musical, which is something that I can’t do anything with now, because it’s copy written.
“The Saga of Alana” about reality TV Star Honey Boo Boo, lyrics by Rachel Kunstadt
Leah Alexandra: [laughs] I love hearing that and I wanted to share with you, I listened to your song “The Saga of Alana” about the reality TV star Honey Boo Boo, which is amazing! It’s so imaginative and funny and really beautifully optimistic and challenges our collective mainstream audience in such great ways. There’s something that’s so special to me about the medium of musical theater where we can have commentary on what’s happening in the outside world with these big topics and it can also be funny and a little more digestible cause we’re singing and dancing about it but still talking about real stuff. How does creating a performance about stigma and mental health issues fit in for you?
Rachel Kunstadt: It’s something I’ve always wanted to write about and expose. The musical Next to Normal is very near and dear to my heart. I actually saw it in the craziest time. Because of my panic disorder I became agoraphobic when I was sixteen, and I was completely housebound for six months. And then when I was seventeen, I started going back to school and everything but I didn’t go to New York City until I was eighteen years old, for the first time in years. Next to Normal was playing off-Broadway at the time and a friend of mine who knew what I was going through didn’t tell me anything about the show but said you should see this musical. I told my mom, “I’m ready, let’s go to the city and let’s see a show.” And I remember, I didn’t know anything about it, which is, it’s just this crazy fate, but I went, we were sitting in the front row, it was three nights before the musical closed, I was sitting front row center, and I saw my life onstage.
And I was like, this is what theater should do. It was closing in three days and I thought I would never hear about it again. Then I remember hearing that it was going to DC for an out of town run and then it was announced the following year that it was going to Broadway. And then I saw it probably about thirty times. For me it was so therapeutic.
I met a good friend [who was working with the cast of] Next to Normal who has bipolar disorder, like the main character in the show. [Like me] she identifies as gay, or lesbian, and she talks a lot about how mental illness is like coming out. Because you come out as queer, or gay, or lesbian, bi, trans — whatever, whatever sexuality identity and gender identity — but with mental illness, there’s so much stigma attached to it that it really is like coming out.
I remember when I was in college my mom told me not to tell anyone. She’s like, don’t tell anyone about your anxiety, don’t say it because people will treat you badly, people will take advantage of you. That still sticks with me to this day. I still don’t like to talk about it with people just because there’s such a bad stigma and I mean, it’s hard, but I feel like it’s time to open up. My mom may hate me for it, but there comes a point when you have to do it for you and not for other people.
Montage from the Broadway show Next To Normal
Leah Alexandra: And I’m so grateful that you are. I think that I can relate to you so much because I’m starting to come out about my mental health challenges, and I came out as queer when I was fifteen and it is reminiscent of that experience. There is fear around sharing these parts of my life so I really want to just honor you and tell you that you’re being very brave and I’m really grateful for your vulnerability and the work that you’re putting out into the world.
Rachel Kunstadt: Thank you.
Leah Alexandra: I would love if you could talk a little bit about the choice to work with other people’s stories instead of your own story right now.
Rachel Kunstadt: For me, a lot of it is out of fear of, well, exposing myself. I’m new in the world of musical theater — I mean as a professional, I’m just an emerging artist and I want to be seen as a professional and showing my own vulnerability is very scary. People have asked me, “Are you gonna write a song about yourself?” I actually don’t know. I did fill out the survey [for Sing Away The Stigma] with my own story. And at first I was like, “I’ll write a song based on it.” And then I was thinking, “No, maybe I’ll have someone else do it”. I never did it and at this point it probably won’t happen, having my story in the concert, but there’s some sort of security and professionalism of having other people do it and having myself sort of take a step back and be a producer as opposed to being a participant.
Leah Alexandra: Totally. I really respect that and it’s all part of the process. We’re exactly where we are in each of our own journeys so that completely makes sense to me. OC87 Recovery Diaries, is all about reducing stigma in the world around mental health, and I love that that’s just the title of your event — Sing Away The Stigma — that’s fantastic. Can you talk about stigma a little bit and what you’re hoping this event will do in dialogue around mental health?
Rachel Kunstadt: Yeah, I read a statistic — I don’t remember the exact number — but it was that a very high percentage of American adults have some sort of mental illness. And for those who don’t, the majority of those people are personally connected to someone who does. It’s just something that’s so common yet so taboo. A lot of people take medication or are in treatment for some sort of mental health issue, yet it’s like that’s your private life, don’t tell anyone about it — I’m not gonna ask you about that, you’re not gonna tell me about it.
So I think, going back to this girl who lost her job, I honestly don’t know if she lost her job because of having a panic attack. It could have been something else, but that was just what popped out to me in hearing this story . . . I feel like it’s something that can be talked about and it doesn’t have to be hush-hush.
Leah Alexandra: I just think you’re amazing. What do you think that we gain from talking about mental health? What is gained by being out and open and communicating about our stories?
Rachel Kunstadt: I know with my anxiety, I have a lot of anxiety about having anxiety, and I think that’s the case for a lot of people — the fact that they have to keep their mental health issues hidden only hinders them, it’s not making anyone feel any better. So I think if we can open up about it and start a dialogue and say, “You know what, some people have depression, some people have panic attacks, some people have manic episodes, but you know what, they’re not dangerous — they’re no more dangerous than anyone else.” That’s exactly what I’m trying to make a difference with. People who have had these [negative] impressions and say, “well that person has blah blah blah, they’re not to be trusted,” or, “they’re not safe or what not.” There are hate crimes. There shouldn’t be biases against people based on their mental health.
Leah Alexandra: Absolutely. So I would love to talk a little more about the process of creating this show, Sing Away The Stigma. What were the questions that you asked people on the survey?
Rachel Kunstadt: I asked for an age range, location, gender identity, preferred pronouns, and then I had some bigger questions like, “If you’ve been diagnosed with any mental illness, what has it been? What was your diagnostic process? How old were you when it happened? How long have you been dealing with it?” I asked about therapy, different treatments, medication, and then there was a big open paragraph that sort of said, “Tell your story here.” That’s been mostly what the writers are using. One of my writers emailed me and asked, “Do I have to summarize the whole disorder for everyone, or should I be telling this one person’s story?” I said the second one. I mean you don’t even have to tell this person’s whole story. Just find something that caught your eye. He did that and he wrote a great song.
Sing Away The Stigma performer Becca Ayers
Leah Alexandra: I’m so excited to hear them and to see them performed! What’s been the biggest challenge of this process so far for you?
Rachel Kunstadt: Getting the word out. While it’s been amazing, I feel like it’s really internal. I would love to get this out to the greater New York community and also to the greater world. I would love to have the performance documented so that people who can’t come for whatever reason — geography or because of a mental illness or challenges — will still be able to experience the concert. I mean it’s a big thing to ask someone to come in to Times Square at night, in New York City in Manhattan, that’s a big — I mean for me, there was a time when I would be like, “Oh hell no, that’s not happening!” I’m hoping to make it as accessible as possible to everyone.
Leah Alexandra: That’s so wonderful and we just want to help you as much as possible. Everybody over at our website just really loves your project and we want to help you get the word out more to everybody who needs to hear about this performance and will be served by listening to these songs and knowing about the event, before the fact and after the fact. Can you tell me a little bit about Bring Change 2 Mind, the organization that’s going to be benefitting from the proceeds?
Rachel Kunstadt: Bring Change 2 Mind was founded by Glenn Close, the movie star/actress. She founded it because her [sister has bipolar disorder and her nephew has schizophrenia]. I’ve never met her obviously but I was reading interviews and watching videos and her family has dealt with a lot of stigma based on mental illness. Bring Change 2 Mind goes into the community and does a lot of education and research — the things that I don’t have the power to do on my own — but they’re really going into the community and educating people. They are making the discussions happen.
Leah Alexandra: That sounds like a great organization to be supporting. So how can people support you and this event leading up to it?
Rachel Kunstadt: People can buy tickets and spread the word. I’d love to have a full house. For people who aren’t able to come, we probably will have a call for online donations.
Leah Alexandra: Well that’s wonderful. Thank you so much for everything that you have shared with me. Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know?
Rachel Kunstadt: Just that – it’s okay. Everything’s okay. Life is good [laughs]. I mean, I feel that if you’re passionate about something, just go for it. I hope people see that I’m a passionate person and think that I do things I’m passionate about. I hope that people know that it’s okay to deal with whatever you’re dealing with. Everyone has something that they’re dealing with, so for people reading this — if it’s a mental health issue — then you’re like everyone else. Well not everyone else, but you’re like a lot of other people.
Leah Alexandra: Thank you so much, Rachel. I’m so glad that you’re showing up in the world and bringing to the table all your gifts. I’m really grateful for the work that you’re doing.
Rachel Kunstadt: You’re welcome, thank you!