Salinger on Risks, Rewards of Staging Schizophrenia

Make-believe mental illness may have met the real thing during a recent performance of John Olive's "Standing on My Knees" (at the Zephyr through Sunday).

"In the middle of the show," recalled Diane Salinger, who plays the protagonist, "this man started walking from one side of the stage to the other, right to left, left to right.

"Now, as an actress I had a choice: I could stop, ask him to sit down--or continue, just use it as one of my hallucinations. So I just kept playing the scene. Then, later, when I'm beginning to lose it, I saw him on the floor, sitting at people's feet, rocking back and forth and waving his arms. At the end of the scene, there's a blackout. I had one foot on the stage, one on the platform . . . and he jumped me."

She shuddered at the memory. "It was an attack . He said, 'I need to talk to you.' I said, 'Not now!' and somehow freed myself, jabbed him in I-don't-know-what-part of his body. We finished the next scene, and when we walked out for our curtain call, he was on the floor again--with his shoes off and pants rolled down. Bob (Neches, her co-star) was apologizing to people leaving, and trying to pick him up, saying, 'You can't pull down your pants.' He said, 'Why not? You did. You were in bed with her.' "

Although Salinger was shaken by that experience, such behavior is not altogether new to her (she played Raul Julia's murderous fiancee in the 1986 film "The Morning After"). Preparing for her role of Catherine--who's weathered two breakdowns and is headed for a third--the actress spent a good deal of time studying and talking with schizophrenics and manic-depressives in a halfway house.

"It's like they have these tiny cilia all over their bodies," she said. "So they're 20 times more sensitive to their environment than other people. One night, I was talking to one of them, a brilliant archeologist, and at some point my eye glanced over at the TV. He jumped up and said, 'Well, I've got to go.' The slightest rejection is enormous . There's also an inability to deal with stress. On the other hand, not all schizophrenics are talented, but if they do have those abilities, the schizophrenia seems to allow them to go further with it--because they're so sensitive."

Within Olive's premise, medication can often disturb that creative balance.

"The only way Catherine can write her poetry is by having an incredible access to her own unconscious--which tends to be blunted by the Thorazine. So (in the play's context) it's actually a very courageous thing when she goes off the medication; her work is that important to her. That's what the play is about: She can lead this safe, sane life--or she can go down, down into herself, even though it may be destructive. I don't want to make (pills) the bad guys or idealize the disease. It's a terrible thing. Life is hard enough, and this just makes it harder."

Besides her research with schizophrenics, Salinger (who spent 10 years in regional theater before her move here in 1984) has relied on her work with local drama coaches Susan Peretz, Sondra Seacat and Peter Flood.

"In Sondra's class we had dream assignments where, before you went to sleep, you'd write out an assignment to yourself--and dream dreams that had connections to the work you were doing. I've done that with this play. Also, for two hours before each show, I read (the script) with a friend.

"She gives me the other person's lines, I say my lines very slowly, with my eyes closed--and these images will come out. If they're strong, I'll try them out that night. The work with Peter is about helping an actor become his own director: seeing the large sweep and not just the minutiae an actor sees. It's the broad strokes, orchestrating a role, framing it. Because the unconscious is wild; it needs structure."

In spite of those artistic and emotional rigors, the Barnard-educated Salinger said that "doing this is very healing. It's a cathartic, healing play. At first, I was reluctant to take the role because I thought I'd be in incredible pain. And it is psychically draining--but not painful."

What does pain her is the limiting middle-of-the road focus of current film: "It's all about having the American look, being the Everyman, John Q. Public. There is some value in that. But it's also very frustrating, because I don't necessarily fit into that category. And I don't have much interest in playing ordinary people."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World