Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Roughing it: Wilderness takes a journey through the hearts of young people, and their parents, in distress

By John Mark Rafacz

For some young people, life can seem like an endless ordeal.

A new multimedia play by En Garde Arts juxtaposes projected video interviews with parents and actors on stage portraying their teenage children to tell the stories of families grappling with addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Outdoor therapy programs set the scene for Wilderness, which comes to Eisenhower Auditorium March 15, but that’s not what the show is about.

“The production is actually about relationships between parents and their teenage children and what happens when you have a child that kind of spirals off the rails due to any number of mental health issues and struggles,” says Anne Hamburger, En Garde Arts founder and co-writer-producer of the show. “It’s really about the quest for connection within families and, when troubles arise, how one looks at oneself differently and how one needs to change in order to heal and make connection possible.”

Wilderness is a collaboration among writer-director Seth Bockley, Hamburger, and movement directors Devon de Mayo and Patrick McCollum. Kyle Henderson (of the band Desert Noises), Kyle Miller (of the band Tow’rs), and indie-folk singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov wrote rock-folk music for the show.

“The title refers to a program for psychologically disturbed teenagers and young adults that gathers them in the outdoors for days or weeks of group therapeutic treatment,” writes Charles Isherwood of The New York Times. “But it also speaks to the idea that in contemporary culture, with its often fragmented families and onslaught of social media, kids today are navigating their way into adulthood in a world in which the old signposts have all but been obliterated, and the path has grown thick with thorny emotional underbrush. The result: anxiety, sadness, self-doubt, addiction, and various other hard-to-vanquish demons.”

Wilderness shares the stories of six families, along with their therapists, on journeys to recovery.

“A smart ensemble of young actors turns the real-life stories of Hamburger’s research into an endearing constellation of high school kids in distress,” writes Miriam Felton-Dansky for The Village Voice.

“The teens relate these stories in fragments, as they hike, set up camp, attend therapy sessions, and argue with their counselors,” Felton-Dansky relates. “The program is demanding, beginning when the teens are ‘gooned’: kidnapped with their parents’ permission, then flown to a remote part of Utah, where they sleep on the ground and traipse through the backcountry with gear on their shoulders.”

Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State Audience and Program Development Director Amy Dupain Vashaw, who saw Wilderness during its autumn 2016 premiere in New York City, says the show opens up a discussion about teen mental health that needs to be heard and addressed.

Wilderness serves as an apt metaphor for the families in this story,” Vashaw says. “Yes, on the surface, it’s about families making the difficult decision to send their child to a wilderness therapy program, often for an extended period of time. But the parents, too, are in their own kind of wilderness, wandering in search of answers to help their children navigate tough situations.”

As an audience member, she says, it’s easy to identify with the people in the story.

“Because these stories are derived from real folks who’ve had this experience with wilderness therapy,” Vashaw notes, “the play has a sense of immediacy and authenticity.”

Center for the Performing Art Director George Trudeau, who’s also seen Wilderness, says the show is thought-provoking and emotional.

“It’s a powerful work of theatre which touches people in profound ways given that most people have either a familial connection to mental health issues or know of someone—relative, friend, colleague—who does.”

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager of the Center for the Performing Arts.