Grief and Depression: How Theatre Pulled Me Through

SarahLynn Mangan

Everyone is told their life is going to be a roller coaster and you won't get anything out of it unless you just keep riding and moving forward, I have found this to be very true.

As a young child life was wonderful, I had four amazing older siblings and two wonderful parents. We were all into performing arts either being on the stage dancing in ballet, singing at school shows or performing in theatre camps. Especially two of my older sisters and I as we are the closest in age, (my brother being twelve years older than me and my other sister eighteen years older than me). Our parents were very supportive and were known to always be willing to get us to rehearsal, give us flowers after performances, provide food for cast members and help backstage. We were known as the family that always wanted to be working in a theatre.

Unfortunately, just twenty days after my tenth birthday my father passed away. He had a disease known as ALS or as I like to tell people “that disease that the ice bucket challenge was for.” He was diagnosed when I was seven and died in his sleep just under two and a half years later. I am grateful that he was no longer a brain trapped inside a paralyzed body- the disease does not affect the brain but rather shuts down every other motor function within the body-so I was happy to see him finally released to serenity but also was reminded of all the things that a daughter typically does with her father.  He will never me down the aisle when I get married to someone I love, never intimidate the people I date, and most importantly to me was that he would never be able to see me nor my other siblings perform again.

I recently stumbled upon my father’s old blog that he used to document his life with the disease and at one point he had written “I really want to beat this thing that is trying to take me before my girls have a chance to grow up” and “I would like to live to see the rest of my daughters and son married, and to see my daughters at least graduate from High School” unfortunately he never even got to see me graduate elementary school.

My entire family had hoped he would have lived just four days longer so he would at least be able to see my sisters and I in our summer ballet performance, but that was not the case. So instead we were told to perform to the best of our abilities and dedicate it to our father. This I did so without delay and wholeheartedly, for I believed he could watch us and that he would be proud to have called me his daughter.

After that performance, we all quit dancing and performing to be able to grief.

That was my first mistake.

I knew that performing was my passion ever since taking my first step out into the lights as a little bon-bon in The Nutcracker and I knew it was an outlet. When something tragic happens to someone so young, they don’t know how to process it and neither did I.

After taking the summer off I jumped back into theatre with being cast as Suzi Spider in Tiny Thumbelina in my fifth-grade musical at my expressive arts elementary school. I continued to participate in theatre camp shows as well, but I knew something was missing from my performances and that I was slowly but surely retracting from my extroverted self who would start singing and dancing musicals anytime I deemed it necessary (which was always).

Almost a year after my father's passing I was given the opportunity to be in my first community theatre production. I was ecstatic because I knew that if I could do this I would be able to show my father he could still be proud of me. I was a part of the youth ensemble for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and in this production, the rehearsal process was quick, we hardly interacted with the adults, and were on stage for the entire show except for “Potiphar.” I remember on opening night I was dancing downstage center in the song “Go Go Go Joseph” and I started to tear up because I felt as though my father was somehow watching me and applauding me on.

After that production, I truly felt as though I would go back to normal, I got confidence back and was ready to continue in life. I had found a way to still feel connected to my father and not feel so alone in my journey of processing my grief.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Tacoma Musical Playhouse 2012    Photo courtesy of Kat Dollarhide    

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Tacoma Musical Playhouse 2012

Photo courtesy of Kat Dollarhide


Skip forward a few years in life and I had become deeply depressed. I went to a middle school that was promised to be getting a great performing arts program but after my sixth-grade year, dance, theatre, and choir were all taken away because funding for the programs had fallen through. With my mom now being the households only income and still taking care of three children (one soon to go on to college) we didn’t have the money to do all the theatre camps that I had become a regular attendee at.

I was too scared to tell my mother or even my family about my depression which didn’t help me with feeling valid for my emotions. Everyone who states that they have depression are doubted until they have the doctor's diagnosis. I also didn’t want to admit to failure of living the best life I could in honor of my father, but I knew things would just get worse if I didn’t find a way to cope.

When I entered high school, it had gotten so bad that the only ways I would find relief of my depression was from being an unhealthy person, telling myself that it was my fault my father had died, and doing many regrettable and stupid things, (but that is for another day).

My sophomore year had come around and rumors in my family had been spread around about my depression and unhealthy lifestyle, but no one believed it because I only showed who I used to be to the world and not who I had become. No one believed it until my mother found me crying in the bathroom before school one day. She finally made an appointment and brought me to the doctors.

I got diagnosed with clinical depression and was put on antidepressants and encouraged to seek therapy (however therapy did not seem like a feasible thing due to the expense and inability to connect with a therapist). After four weeks when they finally started working, everyone could tell. I was more flamboyant and always singing and dancing to show-tunes just like my younger self.

However, during this time of healing, my grades were suffering and the possibility of graduating in two years was slipping away before my eyes. I failed two classes which meant I had to spend my summer in school to try and get my credits back. Many of my friends I had made in choir and old theatre friends were going to do a summer theatre camp that I used to attend and would have attended if I could have. When I saw their performance, I wanted to cry because all I wanted to do was be on the stage with them.

At that moment, I decided that it was time for me to get back into the theatre scene and make my mark again. I auditioned for the play “Blithe Spirit” which was going to be put on at a local community theatre and directed by someone who had helped first spark my interest in theatre all together. When I got the call that I would be playing the maid Edith I started screaming of happiness before I even hung up (the stage manager and I laughed about it later because she clearly heard me screaming for joy). I was finally going to be back on the stage and with people who are highly thought of in the theatre scene in my county.

When rehearsals started, I knew that those people and that show would be the show to truly bring me out of my depression. I had a schedule, people who relied on me, and a family who believed in me. That theatre experience was what finally helped me achieve my goal of being a healthy person who didn’t have to rely on supplements to be able to live a semi normal life.

The cast of Blithe Spirit at Tacoma Little Theatre 2017

The cast of Blithe Spirit at Tacoma Little Theatre 2017

It has now been five months since that show closed and I am currently performing in my third community theatre production and in rehearsals for my fourth of my junior year of high school. I reconnected with my old drama teacher in elementary school and assistant directed her production of “Charlotte’s Web” at my old school. I have also been accepted into a performing arts college (yet to decide if I will attend due to financial and such), and am exploring other options for college.

Although it may not seem like such a major triumph to some people, I have had the ability to discover myself again and be the person everyone knows I am again because of theatre and it is truly remarkable. It has always been there and will always be there as a reminder of the first time I felt a connection with my father after his death and the first time I felt free to be myself and come back out of depression again.


I Blame Fruma-Sara(h)

By Michael Kape (a/k/a Grumpy Olde Guy®)

Two questions, one answer. How did I become such a theatre maven? How did I become so grumpy? I blame Fruma-Sara(h). More for the former than the latter.

No, not the Fruma-Sarah who visits Tevya in his “dream” during Fiddler on the Roof. She came from beyond the grave to warn him if his daughter married her husband, well, there would be dire consequences. And after this blog entry, I fear my Fruma-Sara(h) is going to be haunting me as well.

My Fruma-Sara(h) is my mother, the late Sara Kape. It wasn’t until after she passed away in 1984 we discovered her name was actually Sarah though she always used Sara. Very typical of her. She was also a terrible driver (don’t ask) and the world’s worst cook (only she could take a catered meal and ruin it—and did).

Fruma-Sara(h) started hitting Broadway in 1932, when she was 20 and ventured to New York City for the first time since her birth on Delancy Street. (I’ve always wanted to turn her story of what happened on that trip—when she rediscovered her “lost” family—into a musical. Who knows, maybe I will someday.) She never stopped going to the theatre once she had her first taste. The last musical she saw was Sweeney Todd (more about that momentarily—when she unabashedly embarrassed her youngest child) and her last movie, appropriately enough, was Bullets Over Broadway.

As soon as she deemed us old enough (circa age 10 or so), she would take us down to New York City from Buffalo for an annual pilgrimage to Broadway. She impressed upon us the need to be on our very best behavior (and be appropriately dressed) when going to the theatre (I wish parents would do that now—but that’s a subject for a different blog). Yes, that lesson stuck; I still dress better to see a show than when I go other places. As Fruma-Sara(h) told us, “It’s the theatre and you always dress to go there.” (There, now you know where I weigh in on that debate. When I was a critic, I always wore a tie and usually a suit. These days, not so much.)

The first Broadway show Fruma-Sara(h) took me to was What Makes Sammy Run? starring Steve Lawrence. But Steve took the night off, so his standby, Richard France, played the title role. (I encountered Richard years later when he was headlining The Palm Springs Follies. His claim to fame was being Steve Lawrence’s understudy. When he asked if anyone in the audience of geriatrics had ever seen him in the role, I alone raised my hand and said, “Yes, Christmas Week 1964.” He was shocked someone remembered him decades later. Insert “small world” cliché here.)

After Sammy on that trip came How to Succeed (original production but with the late, great Ronnie Welsh as Finch, and unknown 19-year-old Michelle Lee as Rosemary), followed by High Spirits (because she loved Noel Coward’s work).

But that’s not how my love for musical theatre started. No, for that we have to once again look to my pusher, Fruma-Sara(h). I was a mere toddler at the tender age of three. The gateway drug? She gave me a boxed set of 45s of Rodgers & Hammerstein for Children—thus indoctrinating me early. I loved those records but grew to thoroughly dislike Rodgers and Hammerstein (but that’s a story for another day).

(To my great shame, I “appropriated” a book from my parents’ library, The Complete Works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Maybe the word I should use is stole. No matter. I still have that book and it’s a prized possession. On the other hand, my father, a huge Damon Runyon fan, gave me his autographed copy of the book Guys and Dolls, from which the musical is derived, after I had been in a production of it.)

Fruma Sara(h) always made sure we had the very latest Broadway original cast recordings in the house (in those days, Broadway had just made the transition from record books—78s with one song on each side bound in a book—to LPs, which were so much more convenient). I still have most of those albums. I even have original sheet music from West Side Story (she also played the piano, badly). That sheet music is particularly valuable for one reason. It listed lyrics by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. (Bernstein generously took his name off the lyrics after WSS opened, gave full credit to Sondheim and had the sheet music reprinted, but he had in fact written some of the lyrics. Bernstein as a lyricist is a little known, but he wrote the “I Can Cook, Too” lyrics for On the Town.)

Over the years, we attended several shows together. She took my sister and I to see the original production of Cabaret in 1966. Before the show, we’re browsing through the Playbill. I’m excited because the legendary Lotte Lenya is in the cast. Fruma Sara(h) is excited, too. “Look,” she exclaimed, “Mickey Katz’ son [Joel Gray] is in this!” Mickey Katz was a popular performer in the Yiddish theatre circuit in those days, and Joel Gray’s one claim to fame at that point was being his son (go figure—that was what was in his bio).

Fast forward to 1979. I’m living in New York and my mother is living out west. She decides to come back east and wants to see some shows. I had just seen Sweeney Todd and wanted to take her to see it. I described the plot to her and she was, well, revolted by the very idea. She wanted something a little tamer. So, we compromised. On Tuesday night, we went to the “Neil Simon musical” (They’re Playing Our Song), which we both disliked. I had managed to obtain Sondheim’s house seats for the Wednesday night performance of Sweeney Todd. We were seated in the second row, on the aisle, as close to the action as possible. Instead of being disgusted, Fruma Sara(h) was enthralled. Act II begins. Mrs. Lovett shouts, “Throw the old woman out.” My mother blurts out, loudly, “The beggar woman—is that his wife?” Thus, did my mother managed to thoroughly embarrass her youngest child publicly. All I could do is hiss through my teeth three words I had never said before, “Shut up, Mother.”

My point in telling these stories is simple. We all enter musical theatre fandom in various ways. For some, it’s a release from home strife. For others, it’s a way to express feelings otherwise unexpressed or suppressed. It calms anxiety. It helps the shy emerge from the shadows and into the spotlight. And for some of us, we simply had no choice. We had a parent who thrust musical theatre on us at a tender age and we’ve never looked back—until now, that is.

So, who was your pusher—your Fruma Sara(h)—and what was your gateway drug?


Caption: Me and my pusher, er, mother, Fruma Sara(h) in 1979, a month after  Sweeney Todd .

Caption: Me and my pusher, er, mother, Fruma Sara(h) in 1979, a month after Sweeney Todd.

Caption: The gateway drug, Rodgers and Hammerstein for Children.

Caption: The gateway drug, Rodgers and Hammerstein for Children.