If you had said to me when I was a student at MIT that I'd end up working as a solo performer—and making a modest living at it—I might have called you crazy. Yet I now perform a solo work regularly for psychiatric professionals and organizations, which have included the Harvard Medical School, McLean Hospital, and dozens of state and national mental health conferences. To quote the Grateful Dead, "What a long, strange trip it's been."
The trip began when I was 5 years old and my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Perhaps the most baffling of mental illnesses, schizophrenia brought unimaginable upheaval to our household. My family veered in and out of crises as my mother began a decades-long odyssey through state hospitals, halfway houses, jails, and homelessness, till she found recovery in a remarkable group home.
I didn't know how deeply her illness touched me until I was a student at MIT. Majoring in management science, I took a poetry class for elective credit and quickly found myself writing about her life and exploring memories I'd kept to myself for years. I was so inspired by poetry that I transferred out of the management science program into MIT's writing program, and graduated with a degree in creative writing.
As I began to publish in literary journals, I also began to perform in Boston's performance poetry scene. At one venue I was approached by an advocate for the mentally ill, who invited me to present my work for a local organization. After assembling a handful of poems and fragments, I performed an early version of what has become my signature work, Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues), a 90-minute lyric monologue about my mother's life.
News of this work spread through the mental health community—largely by word of mouth—and I've since performed for scores of state and national mental health conferences, hospitals, schools, churches, and even the U.S. Library of Congress. I now file my taxes as a writer-performer, and I passed an important milestone in 2004 when most of that year's income came from solo performance.
The first step to making a living as a solo performer is to present work that appeals to a specific audience—to find a niche. When I first began performing in the mental health field, I had no idea how large it was. Physicians, psychiatric social workers, mental health counselors, family members of the mentally ill, and, of course, those with mental illness themselves—all have professional, social, and support organizations. The same is true for most communities. People are gregarious, and they create organizations by nature.
The second step to earning a living as a solo performer is to find those organizations and audiences that will support you because your work speaks their language. It's about finding "your people."
My work has served a purpose in the mental health field by providing a creative medium for conveying information that goes beyond the usual lectures and PowerPoint presentations. The mental health field is not unique. Most organizations can benefit from a live performance that explores the community's important issues. A performer can create a powerful experience by bringing physical and emotional vigor to topics that might otherwise be dry or academic.
Many artists wrestle with the question of relevance: "What's the value of my work in our larger society?" Although Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) began as a personal vehicle for negotiating a difficult past, it has become a meaningful experience for a group much larger than myself. By filling the need of a community that has personal relevance to you, your performance work can not only demonstrate its value to society, but can also pay your rent.
Michael Mack's lyric monologue Hearing Voices (Speaking in Tongues) plays through May 14 at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre, Times Square Arts Center, 300 W. 43rd St. (at Eighth Avenue), 5th floor, NYC. Tickets: (212) 352-3101 or www.theatermania.com.