Words and music fight depression and despair in "Unplugged"
For Paul McComas, a project is seemingly never done. Whether it's simply some of his old music made in previous bands or old childhood videos of homemade episodes of "Star Trek," the local author and musician is always coming back to his old material, tweaking and revising and expanding upon it.
On some level, "Unplugged" – a live performance rock show coming to the Henke Lounge in Marquette's Alumni Memorial Union Tuesday, March 25 at 7 p.m. – fits right in with those other projects featuring McComas collaborating with his past self and past works.
It started life as a novel written by McComas in 2002, but it soon grew into something much larger and more elaborate, including a live performance and a CD compilation – now expanded, improved upon and released this past January with all of the proceeds going toward the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). For McComas, however, "Unplugged" is much more than simply another project.
"(Paul) told me from the beginning: he'd done all sorts of things, but this one – the book, the music – is the most important," said Maya Kuper, McComas' fellow performer, musician and collaborator on "Unplugged," as well as multiple past projects.
Much of that is due to the performance's mission: combating rape, depression and despair, topics that sadly still desperately need just as much attention and discussion today as they did when McComas originally wrote the novel "Unplugged" 12 years ago.
"Sadly, this will always be a relevant story, whether we're talking about issues of depression and suicide or issues of rape and abuse," McComas said. "There are a lot of people who have been fortunate – blessed even – not to experience it first or second-hand, and for a lot of them, I think the closest they can come up with to relate is, 'Well, I've had some bad days.' They don't understand that it's a neurochemical phenomenon, that it has a hereditary predisposition element to it. This isn't something anybody would choose."
The show is an hour-long journey of inner struggle and triumph told with a mix of acted out, spoken sequences adapted from McComas' 2002 novel of the same name and songs from, as well as inspired by, the events and emotions of the story. The Center for Peacemaking at Marquette is bringing the free, open to the public event to campus with any and all donations going toward RAINN.
"At first blush, it may seem like an odd marriage, this show and peacemaking because it's not explicitly about war or combat," McComas noted. "Peace broadly defined – inner peace, interpersonally, between different parts of yourself and different parts of a community – I think is all over this book and this show."
The story's base origins, however go back even further than the book's 2002 publishing date. The first seeds for "Unplugged" were planted in McComas' mind back in the mid-'90s. At the time, the musician was performing and running a program called "Rock Against Depression," a tribute to the famously talented – and troubled – Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain.
"The purpose was to pay tribute to him in a way that would also serve as a way to educate his younger fans about depression and suicide awareness," McComas said. "It was about halfway through the run of that project that it occurred to me: I'm addressing these issues through someone else's work and through music, but not through my own work and not through fiction. So I decided to tell the story of a character in some ways similar to Cobain – but obviously not based on him – who has the opportunity to step back from the brink and live and grow and heal."
The character wound up being Dayna Clay, a bisexual alt-rocker struggling with depression and her past demons, leading to a spiritual and personal journey to inner peace. Her emotional search in the novel and the live performance takes her to the rocky Badlands of South Dakota, which plays a character itself in the novel.
"For the Lakota Sioux, it's a place of sanctuary and hiding, which is exactly what Dayna is looking for," McComas said. "Then the central metaphor of the book involves the formations in the area, which are not rock mountains but dirt, silt and clay compacted together. As you climb them, they can break away under your foot or come off in your hand. What happens over time is not that the unstable foundation magically firms up for you, but you become more adept at navigating its inherent instability. And that, to me, is recovery."
The centerpiece of "Unplugged," however, is Dayna, a character that means a tremendous deal to McComas. The author did a great deal of research in order to accurately and respectfully write not only from the woman's point of view (a notion McComas dismisses, saying, "There's no such thing as 'the woman's point of view'; there are 3.5 billion of them, and I only need to be authentic to one."), but from the perspective of a bisexual woman struggling with depression and being a rape survivor.
McComas then mixed that research with a composite of real-life inspirations. There's a little bit of Kurt Cobain in the character of Dayna, as well as a bit of McComas himself and his own personal battles with depression. Elements of the character are also inspired by McComas' first girlfriend, Julia, a talented acting and performing student at UWM who was raped and, less than a year later, went to the top of the tallest building on campus and tragically committed suicide.
"On some level, I think I wanted to rewrite that last chapter of Julia's life and let her live," McComas said.
The second track on both the album and the live performance, the essay "For Julia," serves as a tribute and explanation of how her sad story informed and inspired everything that is about to follow. McComas and Kuper noted that some audience members struggle with the tragedy of the story, but there's a reason why it opens, not closes, "Unplugged."
"That's not where the story ends," McComas said. "We must not let the story end there. And we're not letting the story end there."
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