Seeing people in a different light:

From The Oregonian, October 2, 2000 – not elsewhere online

‘In A Different Light’ performance group was a project of the Mental Health Association of Portland from 2003 until 2008. Pauline Furness died in 2003.

The surprise that taught her lessons for life happened when Pauline was 7 and her mother took her to another audition.

Pauline never wanted to be a child actress but she survived the cut and returned for a second screening. In the meantime, Mother had redone Pauline’s hair into a mass of curls. When the casting agent spotted her new hairdo, he approached them with a purpling face and, the way Pauline recalls it, said, “What did you do to her? We need ugly kids for this!”

That was 73 years ago, but Pauline Furness already was learning how ignorance hurts. And after she had grown up and danced with the legendary Rockettes and earned a doctorate in psychology and produced plays in Portland Public Schools and become a great-grandmother, one day the mother of a young man suffering from schizophrenia quietly suggested, “Why don’t you do a show using the mentally ill?”

A light clicked on. Pauline Furness, who turned 80 last week, could not imagine a more educational idea for a number of reasons, one being that it could help lift the fog of wrong impressions about those who need help for mental health. It could reveal skills. If things went well, it could show people in a different light.

Soon, that became the working name: “In a Different Light.”

As a private consultant using drama as therapy, Furness scanned the literature and found no ready examples of mental-health outpatients performing together in public. She found immediate support for the idea from Stephen Loaiza, president of the Clackamas County affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. They posted a regional casting-call notice in clinics for singers, set designers, carpenters and others.

“Our recruiting list is growing quickly!” the poster read. “Contact us soon.”

In downtown Portland on a Thursday night in January, a slice of 60 street people and others with various diagnoses — schizophrenia, chronic depression, obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders — showed up with a few professional caregivers at donated practice space in the First Congregational United Church of Christ.

Ages ranged from 17 to 70 and older. Three dozen returned for a second call. Since then, Furness and others have written a musical and variety show and practiced nearly every Monday as they prepare for the first paid performance Oct. 6.

The trick is keeping a cast intact. Relapses happen. “I had a problem and I’m back in the hospital,” a recent call-in went. “But don’t worry! I’m studying my lines!”

Medications can fog memory, so speaking parts are usually only a sentence or two at a time. That makes it easier for understudies to jump in when others disappear. Anxiety is everywhere, so they tap it as a resource.

“Stay nervous,” Furness suggests. “That’s your ‘alert’ button.”

The cast and crew include counselors from local drop-in centers, a graphic artist, a cleaning woman and a church custodian who was simply waiting to replace the chairs when he noticed they needed more men for a pub scene and asked if he could jump in.

That pub scene, set in London in 1910, begins Act I of “In a Different Light.” The story is about an inveterately backslapping pub crawler, Mike, who is engaged to be married in the morning to Maggie the scullery maid, also known as “Mag the Hag.”

The players

Playing the lovable backslapper is a big-voiced Oregon City resident named Don Looney, 39, who ended up in the play out of curiosity. Looney responded to the casting call at a mental health drop-in center he visits, and he tells a little about his pathway in hopes it educates.

He says he remembers beatings as a child with sticks and belts. He says he ran away about the age of 17 to New Orleans. He says he hired on as a Bourbon Street female impersonator, became the emcee, told jokes, then hitchhiked back to Oregon with motorized souls who included a hash smuggler, a trucker who at first mistook him for a woman and a motorcyclist whose exhaust pipes melted his gum-rubber sandals.

Looney says people determined he was bipolar with psychotic features last year while he stayed under suicide watch in the downtown Justice Center jail. He says he had been brought in, that time, while too loudly singing hymns outdoors. He continued singing Christmas carols while inmates, as he recalls it, shouted for him to just shut up.

But the jail’s acoustics were superb, Looney says, and now he practices daily to perfect the part of the big-hearted pub crawler who belts out a big-time song: “Get Me to the Church on Time.”

“I’ve been pretty lucky, pretty blessed to come out of everything almost sane,” Looney tells friends.

Finding inspiration

Another performer across the hall, Mara Windstar, 43, suffered depression so severe she could not bear to see herself in a mirror. She graduated from St. Mary’s Academy in Portland, moved more than 60 times and occasionally entered psychiatric wards for treatment of bipolar disorder. She says she attempted suicide in the early 1990s. She ended up on the streets for weeks and went from phone to phone, hanging up, paranoid, before finding the help she required.

Windstar eventually started an inspirational-greeting-card business, spoke about the streets and wrote a $10 paperback of reflections, “In the Shadow of Halos.” It sits on the living room table of the outer Southeast Portland home where she has lived for the last six years with a married couple, Robert and Christine Weber-Kearney, the play’s music director and a former Holy Names nun whose life has linked with Windstar’s in remarkable ways. Weber-Kearney, in fact, was Windstar’s sixth-grade music teacher.

“You’d better be good to your teachers,” Windstar says, “because you might end up living with them someday.”

Early lessons

Some of the magic follows from Furness.

Born Sept. 26, 1920, in New York, she danced with the Rockettes, joined the first wave of United Service Organization dancers to perform for troops in World War II, had three children, ran a New York dance studio and once did a show for homeless children.

But instead of watching that show, many children seemed grabbed by something at a side-stage door — the eyes of actors’ mothers peeking through at their children on stage. Furness later went to one of the homeless girls to ask what so deeply held her attention.

“Are those their real moms?” the girl asked.

“Yes,” Furness replied. “Would you like to meet them?”

“Could we?”

They clumped around the mothers and Furness fell into tears.

She quit working outside the home to spend more time with her own children. Sometime in the 1950s, it struck her how confidence-building it seemed for a child to have a birthday. She decided it was not all that different from the feeling of being on stage. That drove her to explore how role playing — playing the parts of others, occasionally being in the spotlight — tended to give some troubled children everything from a deeper sense of empathy to a pick-me-up between birthdays.

She received a doctorate in psychology in 1975, advised others in ways of mingling theater and therapy, did postdoctoral study at England’s Cambridge University and continued to try to learn lessons of life.

Another had come the day, years before, when she was producing a grade-school play in which she had asked the special “at-risk” students to participate.

One of those students looked around, recognized that he was surrounded by only his friends, and told her, “How come all the weird kids are here if it’s so special?”

With that, she began trying to mix students of all skills: The “good” students with the “bad,” and so forth. They could educate one another. That thinking carries through as she works this play.

Working as a team

Cast members vanish with emergencies. Yet replacements appear in fruitful ways. Anxiety sidelines a singer; in jumps Act II director and longtime theater teacher Barbara Hollcraft until the performer’s silvery sound returns. Furness herself takes leave for exhaustion; in steps Ed Bowen, an associate professor of theater and chairman of the Performing and Fine Arts Department at the University of Portland. A talented pianist disappears into foster care; along comes a professional without a piano of his own but with a perfect sense of pitch.

Confidence dives and soars, and on days of thinking they might survive, talk bubbles up about maybe someday forming a theater troupe to keep a good thing going. But practice comes first, and Furness squeaks by in tennis shoes and a blouse the colors of summer. She totes the ring-bound script. Another practice jounces along and everyone offers advice: If the crowd gets loud now and then, for instance, you should wait for the thunder to start to decay before you continue to speak.

“Let the audience dictate when you say your next line,” Furness says.

“Commit to the gestures,” Bowen says.

Watch for your musical cues, Weber-Kearney says, “or we’ll sound like a bunch of flat tires.”

All in all, they say they imagine they will do all right.

They have survived days on the streets.

Now they commit to stand on stage and sing “The Impossible Dream,” then get on in life with another lesson under the belt: that every stranger you pass on the streets is an ark of great and silent circumstance.

“I don’t know their story,” says the woman who once couldn’t bear to behold her own reflection. “But I know they have one.”