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A Dramatic Comeback

Darensbourg and mentor Susan Vick, professor of drama and theatre.

By John Leonard and Michael W. Dorsey
Photography by Dan Vaillancourt

“I stopped being scared years ago. I learned to shut up. Take my happy pills and pass myself off as normal. Most of the time it works.”
—Lee, in Passing, a play by Catherine Darensbourg

In Passing, a one-act play that debuted last year during the 23rd edition of New Voices, WPI’s annual new plays festival, a worker decides to quit her job after failing a workplace drug test rather than admit that the medications she takes are for her mental health. “I’m mentally ill and legitimately medicated,” she tells a co-worker. “Have been for a long time.”

For playwright Catherine Darensbourg ’02, as for the character in her play, mental illness has been a constant companion—and a continual hurdle to overcome—since she was diagnosed almost 13 years ago with schizoaffective disorder, a psychiatric condition that combines elements of schizophrenia and depression.

Her illness extended her undergraduate education into a 14-year marathon, made her daily functioning dependent on medications that have ameliorated her symptoms, though sometimes at a crippling cost, and immersed her in a world of social services that seems designed, principally, to keep her living in poverty. But one thing mental illness could not accomplish was to diminish Darensbourg’s creativity, nor her drive to grow as an artist and gain a wider audience for her work.

From her fertile imagination has come a constant stream of plays and short stories, along with an unpublished 180,000-word fantasy novel she wrote as her major project in literature. Fifteen of her plays (a record) have been produced at WPI as part of New Voices. Two have been accepted by the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Original Short Play Festival, one of the nation’s most competitive playwriting contests.

In 2004, Dreams Abridged—a shortened version of The Dreamery, first performed at WPI in 1992—was mounted by a cast and crew of WPI students, alumni, and staff in the Chernuchin Theatre at the American Theatre of Actors on West 54th Street in New York. It was one of 100 plays selected for the festival that year (from more than 300 submitted). Only one entry would ultimately be published by French, the world’s best-known theatrical publisher. Darensbourg made her second trip to the festival this summer with Passing, which was also presented at the Chernuchin by a WPI cast and crew.

Another Darensbourg play, Famous Lost Words, was a runner up this year in a national new play competition held by the Catholic University of America, and sponsored by the Paul VI Institute for the Arts in Washington, D.C. Along with two other runners up, Darensbourg’s play was given a staged reading in April, and playwright-in-residence Jon Klein, author of 20 produced plays, is working with Darensbourg and the other festival winners to develop their works for possible publication.

Most recently, Darensbourg, along with Dean O’Donnell, instructor in WPI’s new Interactive Media and Game Development major program (and also a frequent New Voices contributor), was commissioned to write a new play for the opening of WPI’s Little Theatre (see A Big Idea Opens at WPI). The play, Prime Time Crime: Teal Version, debuted on Nov. 17.

A scene from the benefit production of Catherine Darensbourg's Dreams Abridged, performed at WPI in 2004 before the show was mounted at the Chernuchin Theatre in New York.

While Darensbourg is known today at WPI as a playwright, her hope when she arrived on campus in 1988 was to become a mechanical engineer. Born in New York City and adopted as an infant by a couple in Lafayette, La., she was an excellent student through grade school and finished high school at the top of her class and as a national merit finalist. Her strong academic skills masked a learning disorder that only became apparent when she began tackling calculus and other high-level math courses at WPI.

In her first term, finding herself struggling more than most of her classmates, she discovered that she suffered from dyscalculia, which is characterized by a difficulty in visualizing numbers. “Genetics was beginning to catch up with me,” she says.

In 1992, now wrestling with financial as well as academic difficulties, she transferred from WPI to Worcester State College. The following year, less than two weeks before Christmas, another thread in Darensbourg’s genetic tapestry came to the surface. She suffered a nervous breakdown and began to hear a voice in her head that identified itself as God and informed her that she was going to die. She dropped out of Worcester State and went to work to pay her medical bills, which soon mushroomed to twice her monthly salary. Then she lost the job, and finally her apartment. “A lot of my life came to a screeching halt,” she says.

Medication helped her counter the effects of the schizo-affective disorder, though at times it proved more taxing than the illness it was supposed to treat. Clozeril, one of the first anti-psychotic drugs she took, enabled her to write one of her first plays, Descent from Eden, but left her feeling so depleted that she slept 16 to 18 hours a day. “They kept trying new medications, because they realized I was never going to keep up,” she says. “But I lost years of my life that way.”

Medication, along with various federal, state, and local assistance programs, and Darensbourg’s own determination, have all played a role in helping her rally back from a debilitating disease, as has regular church attendance. “Whether there is a divinity or not,” she says, “the mental discipline of just saying prayers, meditating, and focusing, over a long period of time, can act the same way that braces can act for your teeth.”

But just as important to her recovery, Darensbourg says, were the people who believed in her and never saw her as a lost cause. “I give people a lot of credit for not just brushing me off,” she says, “because I was totally out of it.”

At WPI, where she was eventually able to re-enroll, those guardian angels included Ann Garvin, director of student advising, who was convinced that Darensbourg’s ever lengthening WPI student career could one day end successfully. “She would say, ‘What do you have that you can graduate in? Once you’ve got a degree, how is that going to help you survive? How can you be sure that you end up with something that’s more than just a piece of paper?’”

Garvin was also a fan of Darensbourg’s writing and brought her work to the attention of Susan Vick, professor of drama and theatre. “Garvin was Catherine’s biggest advocate here,” Vick says. “I can’t begin tell you what that woman did for her.”

Darensbourg, in turn, credits Vick with helping nurture her potential as an artist. “None of this would have been possible without Susan Vick,” she says. “She was always cheering me on. She’d come around near the New Voices deadline and say, ‘You’re going to turn something in, right?’ She was not exactly cracking the whip, but she wasn’t giving me milk and cookies and saying, ‘You poor dear.’ It was a nice balance between the two.”

In May 2002, Darensbourg received her bachelor of science degree, with distinction, in literature with a concentration in drama. Though she changed her major, she credits her engineering studies with stimulating her interest in technology (reflected in her science fiction stories, which often feature ingenious gadgets) and her own success as an inventor. (She won third place in WPI’s 2005 Strage Innovation Awards, honoring young inventors who can translate good ideas into viable products, for a disposable cleansing mitt she developed with Alexandra Levshin ’05). In general, she says her WPI education fostered in her an entrepreneurial spirit. “Whatever their major, WPI gives all graduates an ability to think for themselves,” she says.

Darensbourg says she has decided to apply her entrepreneurial bent to writing, a career choice she made over the objections of her mental health care providers, who frequently urged her to find a more dependable way to make a living, like clerking in a store or waiting tables. Her chosen profession has necessitated an austere lifestyle.

Despite her dramatic comeback and prolific output, Darensbourg lives modestly in an apartment provided by the Worcester Residential Assistance Program. She is careful not to exceed the income limitations dictated by the federal Social Security Disability Income program to avoid losing the funds she needs to buy her medications. She supplements the little she can earn from writing with other artistic pursuits, including pottery, enameling, lamp-working, embroidery, and metalwork. She also paints and draws. “To keep my sanity,” she says, “the tradeoff is poverty.”

If her recent successes are any indication, Darensbourg may not have to make that tradeoff too much longer. But Vick leavens her enthusiasm for Darensbourg’s talent with her own knowledge of the cold reality of the entertainment business. She says she has seen many students try to make it over the years; most of the people who enter the field remain on the bottom, and only a few come out on top. Far fewer find any kind of happy medium. “You can’t make a living, but you can make a killing,” Vick says.

For her part, Darensbourg seems to have adjusted to life on an extremely tight budget, and even accepted it with grace and humor. “If I live very carefully on my disability, I can do it,” she says. “And with help and assistance and people throwing peanut butter sandwiches my way, life is good.”

Cast and crew take their bows.

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Last modified: Dec 21, 2005, 16:52 EST
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