When a young man is placed in a psychiatric hospital following a seemingly random, rapid decline in emotional and mental stability, the prognosis from the outside looking in can look bleak. Walker Vreeland knows this, and has decided to fight the darkness with humor and pathos in his autobiographical monologue From Ship to Shape. The piece, which will be featured in Bay Street Theater’s 3rd Annual New Works Festival, chronicles Vreeland’s battle with mental illness that began when he was 24 years old. It sounds like serious stuff—and it is—but Vreeland looks back on the turbulent period and finds laughter.
“I think I saw the humor in it that would stop the piece from being too so maudlin too dark to stomach,” Vreeland says, noting that the story, which explores his descent into depression while employed as a cruise ship singer, has natural levity. “I just think there’s something inherently hilarious about a cruise ship. Take any story that’s over-dramatic and place it on a cruise ship.”
Vreeland began working on From Ship to Shape after looking through his old journals. “I had been keeping a journal throughout the cruise ship debacle and throughout the months that followed, through the time I was hospitalized and then for a long time after,” he says. Vreeland found a narrative through these journals. “It wasn’t until three years after the experience, I realized that not only was there potential for a piece of theater within this writing, but there was something…I congealed [my fight with mental illness] into one part of my life.”
Although Vreeland is a radio personality and performs daily, he feels very vulnerable doing From Ship to Shape. “Yes, I’m a radio personality and I’m very open on the air about my past and history of mental illness,” he explains. “I try to be very transparent and open, but that’s not every moment of my four-hour radio show! This experience is very, very different. I am completely vulnerable for 90 minutes. There is just complete vulnerability, going on this journey through the highs and lows.”
After the Bay Street performance, Vreeland will continue to work on From Ship to Shape which has been accepted into the New York International Fringe Festival. That’s quite the accomplishment, especially since he has never written a play before this. “I’ve never identified as a writer,” he marvels. “It’s no accident that it’s taken 10 years to develop this, with rewrites and figuring out what I really want to say.”
Perhaps most importantly, Vreeland hopes that From Ship to Shape can help people. “Obviously mental illness is a stigmatized issue in our society. My mission, as a human being, is to encourage conversation, and if that means putting myself on the line…I think that’s where healing begins—with honesty and healing the shame that’s embedded into all of us.”
Previous audiences have definitely left Vreeland encouraged. “It’s been responses and conversations with audience members that has given me the confidence that this is a story that needs to be told,” he says. “My intention is to show that it’s okay to laugh at your most disastrous chapter or your most shameful chapter and hopefully encourage others to laugh and learn.”
From Ship to Shape, by Walker Vreeland, performs during the 3rd Annual New Works Festival on Saturday, April 30 at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Tickets are free, but reservations are highly recommended, as seating is limited. Call 631-725-9500 and visit baystreet.org for more.