‘Documentary theater’ examines mental health

Welker White, left, and Taylor Noble perform in “Wilderness,” a multimedia production headed to Eisenhower Auditorium on March 15.
Welker White, left, and Taylor Noble perform in “Wilderness,” a multimedia production headed to Eisenhower Auditorium on March 15. Photo provided

Addiction. Depression. Anxiety. These topics will be front and center next week in the latest show to hit the Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State stage.

“Wilderness,” a multimedia performance that combines acting and music with real-life patient stories, will be performed March 15 in Eisenhower Auditorium.

Sounds like a real uplifting evening, right? Don’t let the heavy subject matter deter you; producer Anne Hamburger said the piece will run the emotional gamut.

“It’s heartwarming and funny and moving and heavy,” Hamburger said. “We find the way into those heavier themes in a lot of different ways.”

Hamburger said the piece was inspired by her son’s struggle with anxiety and depression as a teenager. He enrolled in wilderness therapy, which involves hiking through the woods without any contact from friends or family, as a way to cope.

The time in the woods allows for complete disconnection from everyday life and all the troubles that come with it, as well as for extended therapy sessions with guides on the trip.

Following her son’s return, Hamburger spent two years interviewing therapy patients and their families via Skype. Six of those stories form the basis for “Wilderness” in what Hamburger calls “documentary theater.”

“I became very curious about what was going on with families across the country who were grappling with some of these same issues,” Hamburger said. “There is so much secrecy and shame around mental health issues yet almost everyone has at least one family member who has gone through depression, anxiety or addiction.”

The performance tackles everything from helicopter parents to the impact that technology has on teenagers’ lives. The interview footage is mixed with acting and set to a folk music score as actors depict wilderness therapy at a camp in Utah.

“Wilderness” is presented by En Garde Arts, the same company that brought Basetrack Live to the Center for the Performing Arts in 2014. A Q&A session with local mental health professionals will follow the performance.

“It’s very important to allow people the opportunity to process what they see and talk about what they’ve seen,” Hamburger said. “We’ve had people come up and talk to us about their own experiences with their own families. It’s a very rich experience to extend what’s in the show to an engaged conversation.”  


  • What: En Garde Arts’ “Wilderness”
  • When: 7:30 p.m. March 15
  • Where: Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park
  • Info: www.cpa.psu.edu