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Bipolar messiah

Off the gurney with Alice Spritz



For one month in 1995, Alice Spritz believed she was chosen by God to lead humanity into the new millennium. Her partner? John F. Kennedy Jr. (“because it only made sense”). But sense failed her, and the messianic delusions landed Spritz a 10-day stint in a Los Angeles psychiatric ward, where doctors diagnosed her with manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. Spritz refers to this period in her life as “the breakdown” and has turned the event into the focus of a one-woman theatrical show, Wondering in Aliceland.

In the summer of 2001, Wonder in Aliceland (the show’s original name) premiered in Los Angeles and later received favorable reviews at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. Spritz moved to Montana in November 2003 and has performed the show for various advocacy groups and during First Night Missoula. She’ll perform the play Feb. 25 and Feb. 26 at the Crystal Theatre in Missoula.

Q: How has the original show changed from the one you’re doing now?

Alice Spritz: The original show was quite different than the show that it is now. It only dealt with the hospitalization. The delusions with JFK Jr. were a major part of it. Coming to terms with being on medications and anything else that happened in my life was left out. I wasn’t ready to talk about the things that were in the next show. So in the second show, I go back into everything that had happened in the year and a half before the breakdown—my father died, I had a miscarriage, different relationships—which was much more uncomfortable for me, harder to write and harder to reveal.

Q: What are you hoping to achieve by performing this show?

Spritz: Initially, I was only thinking in terms of artistic achievement, and that was my goal. It wasn’t really until I came here to Montana and started doing the show for consumer groups, like friends and family of the mentally ill, that people responded with this idea that by seeing the show they had a better understanding of their spouse or their child who had a mental illness. I realized there was a purpose to what I was doing. I’m trying to let people understand what’s going through someone’s mind who’s mentally ill. One of the best compliments I got was someone saying it was the best representation of [the illness] they had seen.

Q: Reviewers have called you brave for speaking about your condition with such candor. What’s your reaction to that?

Spritz: It’s mixed. I mean, it’s very gratifying and flattering. It’s weird because sometimes you feel like you’re a fraud or you’re getting false praise because the more I do the show, the more I learn about the illness and come to understand myself, I see more things I don’t reveal about my personal relationships, how I might not be as honest or brave in confronting things. I’m learning that it really is important to speak up and be open about it. There’s still this shame and secrecy and stigma that’s so rampant in 2005.

Q: What’s the stigma of mental illness as you see it?

Spritz: I remember when I was first going through the mania and the term was used directly to me, and wherever you got the idea of what manic depressive means, it just sounded so horrible. You had this vision of this deranged person who never recovered, and many people still hold that view.

Q: What are the benefits of telling this story through the theater as opposed to another medium?

Spritz: Personally, since I’m an actor, it’s the perfect form for me. I think it’s more effective with people, like with little kids when you make something a game to try to get a message through. It would be more effective than saying, ‘kids you should be nicer to other people.’ Also, the hope with doing it theatrically is that you’re pulling in other people who may be interested in theater, and they come and really are enlightened, as opposed to someone who already knows and is aware.

Q: What was the hardest part of your ordeal?

Spritz: One thing I do not cover in the show is the time after I got out of the hospital—the road to functioning and figuring out what you’re going to do after the diagnosis and after you’re broken and after your life is left in shards. The process until I was in any way in a stable life took a while. That was really the hardest part. It wasn’t until I was working and being able to support myself that I knew I wanted to do a one-person show. From the time I got out of the hospital to the time I wrote the show, it was about five years.

Q: How has your condition changed—or has it—since you’ve been doing the show?

Spritz: It’s interesting, because there’s a tricky problem I didn’t account for when I first did the show that I’ve realized since. When I do the show I’m reliving everything, and it’s a very physically and emotionally draining show to do. On top of that, as you get older the cycles between mania and depression may be more frequent, it progresses a little, so you have to keep a tighter watch and medication has to be regulated. While it’s cathartic, and that interaction with people is vital, it’s extremely stressful. So I’m trying to find the balance in how often I can do it, how much space I need to leave between performances, that kind of thing.

Alice Spritz performs Wondering in Aliceland Friday, Feb. 25, and Saturday, Feb. 26, at the Crystal Theatre at 8 PM. $10. A discussion with Spritz follows. The performance is not suitable for children.

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