By Pravin Wilkins
Atlas of Depression, created and directed by Eben Hoffer, consists of the retelling of a series of interviews between Hoffer and various people at Carnegie Mellon who experience depression. The piece was created in a documentary style called verbatim theater, which constructs plays from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic. Atlas of Depression allowed Hoffer to investigate his own experience of depression in the context of his fellow students experience.
What got you interested in verbatim theater and why did you choose this style as the medium for this show?
I’ve been doing a lot of work in that vein for the last five years or so in New York; I direct a company called Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble, and all the work we do is about re-performance of consumer media. It’s all about taking videos that circle around a topic and are in a form people recognize, then lining them up in a way that illuminates something about how they’re working and what they’re about underneath. So, this style is sort of in the air for me and performing non-fiction has been an interest of mine for a long time.
What was it like in the rehearsal room working with actors who are not embodying characters, but instead are embodying a diverse subset of students at our school?
We talked about it very explicitly and openly from day one, as one would have to. Onstage for this performance, there are two very similar-looking white men reading experiences of people who are very different on an identity level. The group of people interviewed are demographically representative of depression, which means mostly women and many people of color. How do you do that? From an acting perspective, we talked about what it means to listen, hear, and respond truthfully, let what you are saying affect you without ever trying to “play” the person. “Embodiment” is a tricky term here, because the actors aren’t ever playing the interviewees.
Why was including yourself in the performance the right decision for this show?
There are many reasons: one part is that it is non-fiction. I was the other person in the room for every interview. I wasn’t interested in pretending that wasn’t the case, or pretending I was some invisible or omniscient presence. On a scale of modeling conversation instead of modeling interview, having a real-life interlocuter emphasizes that the show is about talking to one another. The second reason is that it’s personal. The project is as much a journey for me trying to understand as it is an attempt to clarify and be part of the community. I wanted to not center myself, but to take responsibility. That’s why me talking breaks so late, and everything that happens after that has to do with recovery.