Mentalhaus: A New Devised Theatre Company Addressing Mental Health Stigma

Mentalhaus: A New Devised Theatre Company Addressing Mental Health Stigma

photography by Jenni Carroll

Mike Silverman is a second year Master of Arts Management student at Columbia College Chicago. He and his wife Katherine Tanner Silverman recently launched Mentalhaus, a new devised theatre company focusing on reducing mental health stigma. We asked Mike to talk about their experience so far and how their Columbia degrees have prepared them for success.

Congratulations on launching Mentalhaus! Can you tell us more about what Mentalhaus is and how you came up with the idea? 

Thank you for interviewing us! Mentalhaus is a new theatre company created right here in Chicago by my wife Katherine Tanner Silverman, who graduated with her MFA in European Devised Performance Practice (EDPP) from here at Columbia in the Spring of 2020, and myself. Specifically, Mentalhaus creates devised, ensemble-driven performances with the intention of reducing stigma surrounding mental health by immersing an audience into a visceral experience they may not otherwise have had. Our first performance was Katherine’s thesis project in May 2020. It was called Virtually Home, and its focal point was bi-polar disorder. It’s a new and exciting exploration of devised theatre in the United States and I think focusing on mental health issues is not only extremely topical and relevant, but important in order to de-stigmatize the topic of mental health and build empathetic and understanding dialogue.

How have you had to shift your approach while opening a theatre company during a pandemic? 

Simply put, the obviously tremendous shift in approach is that the theatre is completely online, at least for the time being, which is a significant change compared to the traditional theatre model. However, with the state of the world the way it is, it’s become a surprisingly feasible endeavor, relatively speaking. We have a driving desire to provide this theatre experience to as many people as we can, and we didn’t want to continue putting it off. We are doing many things that we likely would have done to interact with our audiences regardless of having in-person performances or not (e.g. vlog updates, social media posts, and the like), so there hasn’t been too much of a pivot in that regard, but we have been forced to rethink and problem solve performances for how best to engage audiences in an authentic theatre experience through a virtual medium.

How have your respective master’s programs at Columbia College Chicago helped you make these shifts and further develop your business? 

To paraphrase one of Katherine’s instructors during her cohort’s last face to face meeting before in-person classes were cancelled last spring: devisers devise and we are going to get through this. Creative problem solving is a forte of Katherine’s, and the EDPP program helped focus and hone her abilities into an exceptional craft.

The Master of Arts Management program is helping me prepare for these shifts in several ways. One is that many aspects of business are done via computer work, and that aspect hasn’t changed much. Another aspect is that it’s actively teaching me methodology and principles in how to be an adaptable leader, how to utilize technology to my business’s advantage, and how to be a creative critical thinker and problem solver.

An example of these practices in action is that the EDPP cohort performances were supposed to be presented live at Columbia’s second annual Third Mask Festival. Because of Covid-19, not only did the festival have to adapt, but also much of their performances needed to be reimagined and adjusted very quickly to fit into a digital platform, and it ended up being quite the success. In this sense, both of our programs have helped guide us through wildly unexpected challenges and have prepared us to be able to maneuver effectively through whatever tribulations we may face. I would say that both of our programs have also instilled in us the concept that we shouldn’t fear failure; that if we can reframe our failures into practical lessons, they are not failures at all, just teachable moments.

What is next for Mentalhaus? 

There are several things coming up imminently for Mentalhaus. Katherine currently has a few classes/workshops that she’s leading that will continue through the month of October, and she may do some more in November/December which we will definitely keep everyone posted on. We will be getting our business paperwork in order and proceeding with the application process to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit, which we’re hoping to have completed and approved by early next year. Katherine has been working on and workshopping a new performance piece based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This will most likely be a solo performance. Some of the early details about that have been released via vlog and is available to be watched on the Mentalhaus Youtube channel. We will continue to update our vlogs/blogs and social media and stay active and engaged with our audience, with the hopes of connecting to more people, building more relationships, and seeking partnerships/supporters.

How can people get involved or follow your progress? 

One of our big things is we’ve started, and will continue, to document and vlog/blog about the process of creating this theatre company. We are touching on everything from the business aspects, to Katherine’s creative process, and all of the difficulties and obstacles we face and overcome in this exciting journey. We have been sharing images and videos of it thus far via social media, namely Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube as well as our website, What’s vitally important for us right now is getting our name out among the Chicago theatre community and elsewhere via friends, family, and other supporters. So, follow our social media, subscribe to our mailing list on our website, subscribe to our Youtube channel and like/comment on our vlogs/videos because support from you is incredibly important to us.

Instagram: @mentalhaus

Watch the Virtually Home trailer here:

photography by Jenni Carroll