One of local theater’s most powerful moments in recent memory occurred post-performance last fall on the stage of the Montana Theatre. At the conclusion of The Puzzle Club, a documentary play about a group of Western Montana brain injury survivors, 13 actors waited as the real people they had just portrayed stepped from the audience to join them under the house lights. Holding single long-stem roses, each survivor contributed to an emotional question-and answer-session in which the actors seemed less the stars than those they portrayed.
At the time, The Puzzle Club received little outside recognition. But since its debut, it has been performed at the University of Southern Oregon and excerpted in San Francisco, and its director and writer, Jillian Campana, was recently honored at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., for her work on the project.
The Puzzle Club has recently been turned into a film documentary, intended for distribution at hospitals and rehabilitation centers nationwide. A making-of-the-film documentary is expected to air on PBS in the fall, and both will be screened for the first time at the University of Montana this weekend.
Campana, a UM drama professor, spoke with the Independent about her personal connection with the real-life Puzzle Club, the making of the play and film, and lessons learned from the ongoing project.
Indy: What prompted you to do The Puzzle Club?
Campana: I had been avoiding for a long time writing and working on theater pieces that married the art form I love with my own self and my own identity. Everything that I teach and every area that I encourage my students to work in is doing just that—using their self as the foundation and working from there. And yet I was really unable to do it myself.
Indy: How so?
Campana: I had a stroke five years ago. It was completely out of the blue. My right vertebral artery dissected—and when I was just 30 years old. One of my last thoughts when it was happening was, ‘I would think I am having a stroke, but I’m only 30 so this can’t be happening.’
Indy: What did happen?
Campana: I lost all feeling on half of my body. By the time I got to the hospital, I could barely move my right pointer finger, and that was it. I had a pretty massive stroke. I had to learn to walk again, function again, to feed myself again. So when the project started I was principally curious about how to marry my own health situation and the stroke with theater.
Indy: The Puzzle Club is a real group that meets every Saturday in Missoula over breakfast. When you connected with them, how did they react?
Campana: They looked at me like I was crazy. Originally, I talked to the group about using theater to discuss their brain injury issues. I wasn’t thinking performance, I was thinking more therapeutic context. They weren’t even remotely interested in that. They listened politely but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest. All the business cards that I left out on the table were left untouched. They said, ‘We have this group as our therapeutic outlet. We don’t need theater.’ I almost gave up the project.
Indy: What changed that?
Campana: I asked a few of them outside of the meeting what they were interested in. They unanimously talked about how they really wanted to teach other people about brain injury and they talked about being really interested in performance. We went from there.
Indy: Something many people don’t realize is that Montana has the second highest rate of brain injury per capita in the country. And this play depicts the stories of 13 members of the club, all ranging broadly in age, background, gender and how they were injured. Did you select those 13 specific members for their diversity?
Campana: I wasn’t selective—I would say they were selective. The people who were interested in the project and who were able to participate did participate. Thirteen of them originally signed up and 13 finished the project.
Indy: How involved were the survivors in the making of the play?
Campana: Originally, when I was listening to the interviews, I thought, ‘How is this going to work?’ But the last question I asked after I conducted all of the interviews was, ‘You’ve given me so much information, you’ve talked for a couple of months to me now, what is most important for you to have included in this play? What do you want the message of the play to be?’ Those two answers really helped guide me. Many of the messages were very similar.
Indy: Such as?
Campana: Don’t treat us like we’re any different. We’re brain injured, not brain dead. We’re very strong willed—you have to be to get better. Those are some of the common messages that the group wanted the play to convey.
Indy: The structure of the play turned out to be nontraditional, but it does have a narrative.
Campana: I wouldn’t say that it necessarily has a traditional dramatic arc. It does because it begins with an accident and it ends with hope, but they are broken down into 10 moments or themes instead of scenes, so in that way it isn’t like a traditional play.
Indy: The relationship between the actors and the survivors must have been a unique and challenging experience, just judging from how most of them reacted during the post-performance Q & A. How did they work together?
Campana: Documentary theater is becoming a more prominent form, but it still isn’t done nearly as much as a traditional play that has fictitious characters. It was daunting for them to have the real person in rehearsals, to have them sit in the audience. I think for some of the actors, they started somewhat fearful. One of the conditions of taking the role was to call and subsequently meet with the person they were portraying. There were a few actors who didn’t do it right away. I’m not sure they knew what to expect.
Indy: How did it become a film?
Campana: Opening night, a man named Ray Winn came up to me and asked, ‘Have you filmed this?’ I’d always been hesitant to film a play because it is such a different medium and it doesn’t convey the same type of things. I told him this and he said, ‘Well, I’ll pay for it. You tell me how much it’s going to cost and I’ll pay for it.’ He gave me his card and he said to call him. When I called him, he said, ‘I’m serious.’
And he was. He started a production company called Broken Pine Productions with his wife, Donna. He’s a good friend of Jack Coleman [a member of The Puzzle Club] and it was important to him that his friend’s story be told.
Indy: You got into this project from a very personal standpoint. What did you learn through the process?
Campana: I learned that I’m incredibly lucky. Not just because I lived and recuperated very well, but because I have hope inside me and because I am very strong willed. I hadn’t really given any of that much credence. I think that I had attributed so much of my success to luck and to superior health care. While that’s true, what I learned from The Puzzle Club is that I also had a lot to do with my recovery. And it reminded me what theater can do.
The Puzzle Club: brain injury survivors talk and a making-of-the-film documentary will be screened at the University Center Theatre Sunday, Aug. 21, at 7:30 PM. There is a suggested donation of $5.