Tilting at Windmills – Not Your Average Theater Program

While at lunch in a restaurant, a mother and daughter have a conversation, looking to reconnect after some time apart.  […]

While at lunch in a restaurant, a mother and daughter have a conversation, looking to reconnect after some time apart.  The older woman’s words jump and stop.  Her face is tense and her talk–cautious, erratic, and uncertain.  She seems troubled.  The daughter, though, takes hold of her mom’s hand and traces the lines on it, asserts herself to their waiter, and suggests that they drink chardonet with lunch, even if it is only the afternoon.  Before long and before any wine, the two women are laughing together over mom’s old ambitions to become a professional yodeller.  Through the daughter’s confidence and spontaneity, the mother’s nervousness vanishes.  The afternoon finds a level of ease. 

One wouldn’t guess that, in this scene from Tilting at Windmills’ current theater production “Not Waving…,” the daughter was returning from an institution, committed there because of her attempted suicide and struggle with bipolar disorder.  This play on expectations, though, exemplifies the aims of the Tilting at Windmills Theater and Art Program.  As cofounder Melanie Groves explains, “We wanted to do something that shows the positive side of mental illness.”

Formed in 1998 as an outlet of creative expression for people who have mental illnesses, Tilting At Windmills concentrates on the stigma around mental illness and seeks to impress upon people the positive aspects of this disease.  The group’s name recalls scenes of Cervantes’ Don Quixote standing up to giant windmills–an image that surmises the challenge these advocates face.  “Fighting those giants-racism, stigma, any oppressive force-often times you are going to get knocked into the ground, but those arms can also fling you into the stars,” said Pete Feigal, cofounder of Windmills and director of  “Not Waving….” The giants he describes here can be fierce; the group is committed to tilting against them.

The healing process is another reason that Tilting at Windmills got its start.  Both cofounders Groves and Feigal have spent years involved in their own struggles with depression. While recovering, Groves joined an arts organization for people with developmental disabilities.  The group had an upcoming show on mental illness and asked her for some information about the disease.  Melanie contributed “Angels of Madness,” the story of her own experience with depression.

At the time, Pete, who copes with MS as well as depression, was speaking extensively in the community about mental health issues.  He helped guide the discussions that followed shows of  “Angels of Madness.”  He had mentioned to Melanie his plans to start a theater company for people with mental illness and, with her spark in acting rekindled, she worked with him to develop the project.

Before Tilting at Windmills became a reality, though, Feigal looked to community ties to get the program off the ground.  As a member of People Inc.’s advisory staff, he suggested that Tilting at Windmills produce a show sponsorsored by the resource center as a way of getting the word out about People’s inc. 

In January 1999, this idea came to life in “Faith Healer,” a play by Brian Friel.  Word spread and soon people arrived from as far away as Madison and Duluth for the play and discussion.   Some would even take a free admission to stand for two hours in the balconies for the sold-out shows.  Afterwards, between 75 and 95 percent of the audience would stay for discussions that sometimes lasted up to 2.5 hours.

After the play had completed its stand, calls continued to flood Tilting at Windmills.  “Faith Healer” was requested at churches, jails, hospitals and schools, and they toured the midwest with the show.  Melanie laughs, “It became the play that wouldn’t die!” 

Since this successful debut, Windmills has expanded its base.  Whereas “Faith Healer” involved three actors, “Not Waving…” includes the talents of eight-all who have had their lives touched by mental illness.  Also, they now supplement the play/discussion program with additional workshops on depression and chronic illness. For example, they recently finished up a busy day which included seven different speeches before it was over.  In addition, Windmills has increased their work with other mental illness organizations.  The group, for instance, gave the ’26th St. Artists’ (a mental health arts program directed by Pat Young) t-shirts and supplies to help artists in this program to get back on track, and give them the confidence to pursue the arts again.  Plus, the group has just been asked by American Express to speak to all 8,000 of their employees on the topic of Mental Illness.  Tilting at Windmills  has become the number one speakers’ bureau on Mental Illness in the country and will work to continue this expansion.   

For Melanie and Pete, the choice of the arts as a way of discussing mental illness is a natural one.  ‘Disenfranchised’ groups, in some way shut out from the resources, social mobility and opportunity in a given society, have constantly relied on the arts to claim representation and to find a voice.  The arts depend on a person’s immediate resources, their innate gifts, and that becomes an essential way for these ‘disenfranchised’ creators (some of which include Beethoven, Cervantes and Michaelangelo) to communicate their strengths to others.  Their voice is heard. 

Melanie elaborates,  “Arts are something  that really have that power to give joy and to bring joy not only to you, but to bring it outside of the self and share it with others.”  Additionally, the arts are instrumental in the recovery process for anyone with mental illnesses.  She continues, “If you don’t have something that brings joy into your life, why are you going to want to live?” Through arts, people with mental illnesses impact others with not only their abilities and talents, but they also help themselves–focusing their efforts on something that brings them joy.

Tilting At Windmills finds that drama and the arts-both rich with legacies from mentally-ill minds-are the ideal mediums to remind people that, as Feigal states, “People with disabilities are seen as flawed and broken and handicapped.  They’re not.  People with disabilities are the ultimate problem solvers because we have to find new ways to get through…We have to listen more carefully and watch more closely and we really learn to see the world in a different way and look within ourselves and that’s what gives us insights to the arts.” 

The arts put ‘disability’ into a light of  ability, joy and great talent.   Those interested have the opportunity to see Tilting at Windmills do so with their current production, “Not Waving…” by Gen LeRoy, at the Cedar Riverside People’s Center, June 8-July 1, 2000.

Double your impact - support quality journalism - give nonprofit, give now