Last November, Gina Musto sat down to interview Jeremy Motz (or just Motz) as part of a look at artists and mental illness in the Twin Cities theater community. Motz was kind enough to share his experiences with Gina for Minnesota Playlist.
Editor's Note: content warning - this piece contains discussion on depression and suicidal thoughts.
GM: Tell me about your experiences in theater and about your work.
JM: I’m a playwright and an actor. I moved to Minnesota from Michigan and lived here for 10 years. Originally, I moved here for the Playwrights’ Center and the Guthrie, but those weren’t really the places for me, so I went out on my own. I went to grad school for playwriting at Ohio University. It was like what Writers’ Workshop in Iowa used to be – structure forward – and it was really helpful for me.
I came back to Minnesota in 2011 and drifted aimlessly for a while. I ended up acting in Fringe and that’s when I found my scene – it’s mercenary theater that you’re in charge of everything and it felt right. In 2013, I applied with my own show and got in on the first try. I only had a shred of an idea, but Damon Runnals (who directed it) helped a lot with this performance. The show itself was a lot about depression – coping, working beyond it, and how that affects your life and outlook on things.
This year (2017) was my fifth Fringe show – I’ve done it every year since I first started, writing original plays and acting in them. Up until last summer I was using them as a sort of therapy for myself. I couldn’t solve my money and insurance problems, so I figured I’d write about it instead of putting that frustration on self and put it in the plays instead. I developed a great build-up before the show and during performances, then felt gutted the end of it all. I realized it wasn’t helping – it was helping at the time but not in a way to move forward essentially.
Last fall I took some steps to enroll in IOP – intensive outpatient program. I essentially got leave from work and they were very supportive about it. The program was four days a week, three hours a day for eight weeks. Really intense stuff – there were ten of us in a group and had to confront a lot of stuff we didn’t want to talk about. But not talking about it doesn’t work. This program helped me a lot. For this year’s Fringe, I had zero stress, I wasn’t freaking out after being through the group. It could be because it was the fifth time I was in the festival, but I also had the tools to deal with it, a mental toolbox, and I knew how to deal with feelings of worthlessness. I was sad when the show was over, but I didn’t feel as gutted and as empty as in past years. But all of us should be talking about mental health – it’s become important for me to be there for people who have questions and help with all of that.
GM: You’ve mentioned it already but tell me a little bit about your experiences with mental illness. You deal with depression. Do you also deal with anxiety? Often, they can go hand in hand.
JM: I have depression, anxiety not so much. Typically, I struggle with feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Anxiety only came up when revving up for shows, not a crippling kind of thing or inhibiting. It rears its head in strange ways – I don’t want to talk to people on the phone, but that’s probably more of an “I don’t like people thing” than anxiety thing.
GM: When was the first time you realized you had depression?
JM: I feel like I’ve had it for a long time, but I just thought it was part of who I was, as a teenager. In theater, I was around groups of people who are really energetic, which is good when you’re really depressed. But I found ways to avoid doing anything about the depression – shoving it back and moving on to the next project. I think moving out here after college was a big pressure point – I didn’t know anybody, I had to go out on my own and get away. I found a great community, but still felt that pang of not good enough, not worth it, no one wants to cast me, no one wants to do my work – that doesn’t help.
I had this idea of “I just need to go to grad school and then people will want to do my work.” Getting rejected from grad school didn’t help. Moving back after grad school was a big depression trigger – it was a three-year program but due to extenuating circumstances, I got cut off after one year and got an MA instead of an MFA. I felt like I was getting kicked out – I’d just spent a year with people and got to know them and then I just had to go.
I spent a year after that in my parents’ basement watching TV and eating four square meals a day. I realized I just wanted to come back to Minnesota and forget the whole thing, un-hit the pause button. But life doesn’t work like that. 2011-2012 were really depressed years with some suicide attempts. That led to the first Fringe show I worked on and focused on getting kicked out of grad school and suicide attempts, and ultimately me saying, “Fuck that, the work is what’s important, that’s behind you, more forward.” Even after going through the IOP group, I don’t consider myself cured. I just know how to deal with it –it’s a process kind of thing. The group never said this, but I would have felt very skeptical if I thought it did cure it. But it did flip a switch in that I knew I could handle this, not bogged, crushed, slowed down by it.
GM: How do you deal with depression? What are your strategies for coping?
JM: There’s no all-out strategy – I essentially tell myself that I know these faults and feelings and I am going to handle it when it comes up in work. Like for a preshow meeting – I know the issues are going to come up, that it’s going to happen. It’s knowing the difference between an actual problem and something you think is going to be a problem.
If you feel bogged down, take some time off – watch a movie, hang out with certain friends, have things that bring you joy. Even though you know that, it’s a common-sense thing – if someone is going to bother you, you can just walk away. Being in the IOP group gave me permission that I get to decide if something is a big enough problem and to step back. I also had the same director last year for my Fringe show and had a good relationship with her. I felt like I was in good hands and knew I could trust her with a lot of problems and shortcomings. She knew how to recognize the warning signs of depression and how to approach issues from another way.
GM: What would you recommend to artists who struggle with mental illness?
JM: Don’t be ashamed about it.
Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Especially in this theater community, so many of us have gone through the same thing and are struggling with it right now but won’t talk about it because we view it as a hindrance. I don’t want to make light - depression is not someone else’s. What works for me may not work for someone else.
With the IOP group, I came out feeling prepared and others didn’t. It doesn’t work for everyone; it worked really well for me and you don’t know what works for you.
Communicate with people you’re with. If certain things make you anxious, tell that. If things make you feel overwhelmed, think about how to step back come back to it, come at it from another angle. Think about that for yourself – what brings you joy in times that you feel bogged down. You don’t need a list but a clearer idea of “I’m not going to do this, I’m going to do something else. I’m freaked out, I’m going to watch this movie, call this friend”– little things but knowing specifically what brings you joy.
GM: Mental illness is particularly an issue for teenagers and young adults. What advice would you give to them?
JM: Don’t be ashamed of it. Never be ashamed of it. It’s never too early if you feel like you need to get help or talk about it. Any friend that makes you feel ashamed is not your friend.
Depression tells you they don’t want to hear your problems and it’s really convincing. And I saw this on a meme I agree with a lot of it – don’t be afraid of your depression because that’s what it wants. It doesn’t want you to go out and have friends, it wants you to stay in your clutches. You deserve better than that.
As an audience member for a show, I heard someone say you deserve this, depression tells you that’s not true- triggered me to realize that it tries to work against you. I’m not cured – I still have bad days, days where depression happens. Friends have parties and sometimes I don’t feel like going, don’t feel like being around people that day. In the past, it would have made me feel really bad, but I tell myself there’s going to be another party. There’s the difference between knowing they’ll be another party and not wanting to go out and do anything ever, letting the depression take over.
With working on one-person fringe shows having a director helps get stuff done and it’s helpful to have someone else there, not doing everything myself. The image I like to go with a lot (because we can’t see depression or anxiety, or some people give the bad advice of “get over, don’t be sad”) is, if you see someone with a broken limb, we don’t tell them to move the limb that’s broken. I like to think of depression as a cast, healing over time. If someone is your friend, they’ll sign your cast. There’s also this stupid stigma coming up with meds. It’s for a chemical imbalance. Do you shame people for taking anti-histamines?