On James Leaf’s “Why I Fight”: An Interview With Malcolm Tulip – Michigan Quarterly Review

On James Leaf’s “Why I Fight”: An Interview With Malcolm Tulip

James Leaf’s “Team Wristband,” published posthumously in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Summer 2019 issue, explores mental illness and psychiatric institutionalization, as well as how mental illness is defined within social and historical power structures (MQR Online also published one of James’s letters and a note from Elizabeth Goodenough that appeared in the print journal.) The short story was adapted for theater as Why I Fight by Gillian Eaton, with Malcolm Tulip playing a psychiatric patient.

This interview was originally conducted in early 2020, before COVID put the theatrical production on hold. Gillian Eaton and Andy Kirshner subsequently adapted Why I Fight as a short film. It screens as part of a virtual event on January 14, hosted by the University of Michigan’s Heinz C. Prechter Bipolar Research Program, the Residential College, and the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In the film, Malcolm Tulip plays another psychiatric patient.

Catherine Valdez (CV): Can you speak on how you became involved in the project and what your role is in the grand scheme of this production?

Malcolm Tulip (MT): I knew James as Jamie when he was at Community High School. Apart from my university work and my professional work in theatre, I directed their after-school program for eleven years. I believe Community, part of the Ann Arbor Public school system, came out of a school called Earthworks in the 70s that rejected the form of the institutional public school system, the length of classes, who you met with, and that sort of thing. For many years, Community would have lines for students to enroll on a first-come, first-served basis. Eventually the lines got too big and they switched to lotteries. 

For certain young people, it was a place they really wanted to get into because they saw their education in a new way. Jamie was one of those, and became involved in the after-school theatre program, called Community Theatre Ensemble. I directed him in a couple of plays, and came to know Jamie as a very smart young man whose discussions often went into areas where I had to stop and ask him, “Where’s that from? What’s that about?” His conversations would always go into the much larger realm of theatrical spaces, literary spaces, and social spaces. Sometimes in the middle of rehearsal I’d have to say, “Jamie, we have to stop talking about that and work on this moment.” But that was not a bad thing. He was clearly deeply involved and passionate about theatre.

Then he went off to university and I heard about his first bout—or what I thought was his first bout—of illness, when he had to withdraw from Harvard. (He went back later.) I was very surprised to hear that as I had no idea what was going on with his health. I think while he was at Community he may have had his first episode, but I wouldn’t have known. When he came back to Ann Arbor we would meet for coffee and sit and chat. Or if I had a performance that was mounted either in a school or at The Performance Network, he would come and see it if he could. He was hungry to keep expanding his knowledge, to determine his path. He would talk to me about who he was working with and meeting, the dream projects he had in the pipeline, and the practicality of putting some of these projects into practice. 

After Jamie died, his parents went through all his papers and found some writing they had seen and read before, some that they hadn’t. It was laid out on tables at his wake. You would go around the table and see the things he’d written. Not long after that, Liz spoke with Gillian about wanting to do something with “Team Wristband.” 

Gillian sent it to me and asked if I’d be involved. To me, it was one more step of that exchange Jamie and I had, another chance to interact with him and his work. I thought it was an extraordinary piece of writing, as were the other pieces of his I got to read. I never doubted that they would be because of the way his brain worked. He talked very fast and the ideas came streaming out. What was good to see with this particular writing was that yes it streamed out, but you could also see that he crafted it. Gillian took on adapting it for the stage and directing it, and I’m one of the performers. A younger senior acting student has the load of the text, and I interact with him.   

In working with high school and now with college students, I feel like I’m carrying on something that was a big influence for me when I was young. I went to an all-boys grammar school in England. We had an English teacher called Peter Sampson who was a really dependable, smart, challenging mentor. We did some pretty heavy classic plays, and he was able to identify and support different students who had an aptitude for performing. Years later I found myself doing the same for students like Jamie who genuinely want to do theatre. As a teacher you want to make sure you can help fertilize the ground, or ease the path, or open the door in whatever way you can.

CV: “Why I Fight” is a very interdisciplinary work that draws from the realms of writing, performance, and mental health education and research. You’re a director, actor, and a co-founder of the Interarts Performance program at the University of Michigan. Can you talk about how your experience with interdisciplinary projects has shaped the way you engaged with this specific interdisciplinary piece?

MT: That picks up from the end of grammar school. The expectation was that I would go to a conservatory or drama school, as we call them in England. But I decided to go study dance and visual arts instead, to study for a Bachelor of Humanities at Goldsmiths College in London. Even though I knew I still wanted to be an actor, I studied dance, drawing, painting, etching—which prepared me very well for the school I attended afterwards, the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Their approach to theatre uses image, movement, an examination of the world around us rather than the interior world, different from traditional American acting training.

We looked at how animals move, how music may take up space, how to really observe people and people in relationships with each other in the world. We created in response to paintings, to drawings, anything that increased our physical vocabulary on stage. How do you create your own works without sitting down like a playwright at the typewriter and writing a script? At this school writing was done on your feet in the space. 

One of the things that training did for me is to not simply focus on what two people say to each other. One person speaking and the other listening, and them feeling things about it, is never enough. I believe if you were to break down a piece of theatre, it should translate to many, many photographs. In each photo, you should recognize something engaging about that moment, that situation. As you move forward, you become aware of how moments are framed and how bodies are living within those frames. You should be looking at the negative space as well. Then you could play with that space, adding more images that influence how you see those people. 

Let’s say you perform some motion or speak some text with a plain background behind you—the audience will read it one way. Put video there: black and white, abstract images, color, expanded or minimized images. Then add sound, which doesn’t necessarily just mean music but soundscapes, and the audience will read the stage pictures differently because you’ll be manipulating their senses. You have many different planes you can manipulate, which by the way is not a bad word in theater. It’s how you can affect the understanding of an audience. Everything is there to clarify what you wish the audience to experience. I don’t normally talk about Disney, but one of their great leaps forward was in filming different planes. They had the foreground, then medium distance, then background, to give the sense of three dimensions while filming frame to frame in older cartoons. Fantasia pioneered this technique. 

I think text is the most easily seductive of the whole vocabulary and you can get stuck on a text. Whereas with movement, though an audience can’t necessarily explain what exactly it means to them, it moves them in a certain way, or shifts their thinking. If they see non-literal images in projection video, something shifts inside them. When there’s all these different types of balls in the air, so to speak, it leads to a more intuitive understanding rather than an immediate understanding that comes from following a simple story with text.     

CV: I want to explore the production’s relationship with movement, but before that I think it’s important to firmly establish the characters in “Why I Fight.” How would you describe the characters we’re following? In your own words, what’s the story that’s being told?

MT: I am more and more convinced that the theatre I like, and this work in particular, is less about a story and more about a state, an experience. “Why I Fight” reads to me (and by read I also mean how it will appear on stage and not just on paper) as a filtering of Jamie’s experiences when he was in psychiatric units, and the impact of those experiences. I think the different things that happened to him—all that he saw or was involved in—has been filtered through his life experience and his vision of both how the world is and how he would like it to be, and that would include the filters of literature and the arts, as well as day-to-day experience. They’ve been filtered to become a sequence of images and interactions. Reading it, I never found myself thinking, did this happen to Jamie? Did this thing described in a moment actually happen? I don’t think it’s a biographical piece in that way. I think it is biography filtered; it comes through as this new sketch which of course has a lot of him in it. It’s like a kaleidoscopic reflection of his experiences in these institutions, but then it reflects and radiates far beyond what happens in these worlds

CV: That makes sense. This piece is heavy with internal conversation, with emotions.   

MT: Well, not only that. There are narratives in there, different characters like O’Connell, Ramirez, Susanna, Shari, and the main character interacts with them or describes these interactions. But he also describes things in his imagination that come to him from outside of this experience. He can be standing on a chair singing a line from Les Miserables, and another time he will be describing a painting, an image, or a fresco of Pallas Athena, because this thing that happened with this woman made his thinking jump to the goddess or other images associated with it. We see his synapses at work, his intelligence, the debris from when an image or event strikes him. It’s like a meteor hitting the ground and sending out all these shards and pebbles and dust clouds. You see the meteor come and land. 

I believe Jamie liked Bertolt Brecht, and this reminds me of Brecht’s work. He uses central stories, central narratives, to give the work different spines. Not just one spine but offshoots, and he keeps us engaged by teasing us with the illusion of “story” that these narrative spines suggest. Jamie’s imagery is always very innovative and taking care of that language is important to me: the way text from a page is transformed into three-dimensional and then four-dimensional imagery, as it goes into our brains and our imaginations. It’s quite an achievement, his writing.           

CV: How would you say movement, as one of the primary languages of this piece, changes from character to character? How it is distinct with each? How is movement a device for worldbuilding? What type of research, in your role as a movement coordinator, did you do to get into the interior space of disordered thought and mental illness?

MT: I react in the rehearsal room to each moment—watching, hearing, and listening. What an actor does with the text is only contextualized once they start to move in the rehearsal space. I don’t choreograph each actor but make suggestions, sometimes by doing things myself, making a provocation. Let’s say Sam, the actor who plays the main character, is up there with a speech and my character Ramirez is in that same speech with him. The way I move towards him or reach out to him or circle him will make him do different things. Often that provocation is in the moment and is through movement and not intellectual discussion. And then there’s other times where I say, “how about we do this?” 

In the play one character is thrown onto the floor, sedated because she’s having problems. We worked on it with Sam and I holding her, similar to stage combat practice, so she could imagine the moment when she’d be injected with a sedative and work out how that’s done with the orderlies. Then the next step was taking ourselves out of the scene so she actually completes the movement by herself. It’s being done to her, but the actor is doing the action herself. Maybe then that becomes a metaphor for what it’s like to be that patient that’s been admitted and hospitalized. Even though there’s people doing it to you, sometimes it feels like it’s still you who’s doing it. You take ownership of that too. 

CV: In terms of having access to a repertoire of movement from which actors draw from, how should actors that haven’t been to an institution and don’t have these experiences approach it? Do you ever draw upon things like the DSM or symptomologies that you can find online?

MT: Gillian and Sam had a visit to one of the units on campus and went to see and talk with people who work in these institutions. I can’t remember if they actually went in to a ward, because of course there’s things like patient privacy. There are videos, some of them extreme like the ones from Bellevue Hospital, and online resources about those institutions. The question is, as with writing, when do you allow the imagery to go beyond naturalism? And when is that in danger of not staying true to the experience? This is really Gillian’s bottom line. As a director she has to decide when that abstract or imaginative imagery goes too far, because this is not about “lunatics.” It’s about people. Things happen and people end up in these situations. 

You do as much research as you can. I have visited psych wards in the past, so I have some experience of the sounds. Of seeing people in them, though not in extreme conditions. Actually, my mother worked as a psychiatric nurse and my brother worked as a geriatric psychiatric nurse. I hadn’t thought of that until now. Should you always go to the place for the research? Often yes. But there are times that you can’t, and then there is the magic “if.” That’s when the imagination really has to kick in. If you were in this situation, what would you do. And you have to consider, what type of writing is the text? What type of performance is it? Are you aligning closer to reality or are you performing some sort of abstraction of it? Or highlighting? Exaggerating? Minimalizing? 

CV: A lot of times in works that portray a marginalized group, the question of ethics comes to mind, such as what makes an actor capable of engaging with a story? How much proximity does an actor need to have to a dialogue in order to tell a story well?  

MT: It’s a tough question and very much at the forefront at the moment, across training and across the profession. There are certain cases where I think specific people have to be involved. Like August Wilson’s plays. You should stay away from that if you’re not African American. It’s a very clear case of boundaries. But then, I was just reading for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange. It’s a choreo-poem that started and was really centered on a group: seven different colors of the rainbow portrayed by seven different African American women performers. But reading her introduction in a later edition, she talks about how she’s seen an Appalachian all-white group do it, and then somewhere else they had the rainbow, many different ethnicities of performers playing. This is a piece that on first sight you might think should only be for an African American cast, but Shange says she’s been delighted to see how it can read differently. So this has to do with the different intentions of playwrights, and the nature of the piece, and the nature of the marginalized group. 

In relation to this piece, are you asking whether you have to have some experience of mental health problems? Is that where you’re going with the word proximity?

CV: By degree of proximity I mean, does this actor have a diagnosis or people with a mental health diagnosis in their social circle? Has mental health discussion impacted their life in a meaningful way; is it something they’ve considered or researched or studied before this role? Is it preferable for an actor with proximity to mental health discussions to take on a role like this over an actor who doesn’t have that?                    

MT: Well, people will argue both ways. There is the issue, which I don’t necessarily embrace, of being triggered if you’re too close to the role you’re playing. Others might say it would be helpful if you do have that proximity and are in an environment where you can explore it through your craft. But I don’t think that proximity is necessary. When I work with an actor, I work with what they bring into the room and not what I assume it should be.    

I’ve got a bunch of things myself with close and extended family. My mother killed herself when I was thirteen. That hasn’t come up in the rehearsal room at all. That’s my business and adds to my understanding. If there was a moment where the discussion went into a certain area and it was pertinent, I might mention it, though it’s not necessary. Some people in the rehearsal process will spend a lot of time talking about their proximity to the material right at the beginning. 

There’s a song in Why I Fight from a play called Marat/ Sade, which is the short version of the whole title: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. The play is about the French Revolution and the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Maybe you’ve seen the famous painting of him in the bathtub with a white bandaged turban. It makes me smile that James thought to include this song. If you’ve ever seen the movie Quills, that’s about the same asylum, where Sade wrote plays for the inmates. So Marat/Sade is supposedly performed by patients in the institution who have different conditions. It’s an ensemble of maybe twenty to twenty-five people. You certainly wouldn’t be likely to find twenty-five actors with experience in a mental institution. 

CV: I want to get back to a craft-level question and talk more about your character Ramirez. How much did you engage with the short story before you received the script? In what ways did close reading prepare you for this performance?     

MT: Because I wasn’t going to be directing the production, I didn’t read it thinking, can this be dramatized? I just read it fascinated, trying to figure out what these people were doing to each other and why. I see what the text says Ramirez does, but I also ask, what am I trying to provoke in others through him? Which takes me away from the centralized thoughts of “my character, my character, my character, how do I build my character?” I’m more interested in how the characters I play affect the main character, who is the most three-dimensional. How can I help him to some of those places by what my character does? Mine has three dimensions as a human body, by taking up space and moving in it, but anything that’s said about my character or what my character says or does is from the main character’s perspective. We have really only seen Ramirez in the short story through his eyes. 

CV: How else does this performance engage with the internal monologue that dominates the narrative of the short story? Do we step outside this monologue a bit or is it still largely inside this internal logic?

MT: It’s all in there. I mean a lot of it is spoken. But also they wrestle and fight. I think we can step out of it and still be present and part of it. We do follow it all through this central character’s internal monologue that is externalized and edited from the short story, changed from internal to spoken monologue and direct address to an audience. When you read “Team Wristband,” he speaks to you from the page. In the performance he speaks to you from the stage. There’s no trying to pretend you’re not there sitting watching, so he talks to you directly.  And there’s a few moments as well where the other two of us characters have an awareness of “I know you’re watching. I see you too.”           

CV: As a performer, what have you found most challenging in this process and what has pleasantly surprised you? 

MT: There are some stage directions but not many. For me the joy of working on this was in surprises such as, ooh we can do this here. We can do that there. It says wrestle there, but it makes sense if we fight here. It says they act these four different types of dying over the ages. Oh, this is how we’re going to do it. There’s humor here. This bit can be funny.

It’s the surprise of what it then becomes. The fun of it. Working with two students and seeing what they’re doing in response to each other or in response to me. Or to Gillian as the director or in response to the material. One of the joys for me is to contribute and be edited. I’ll suggest or try something, and sometimes it’s “yes absolutely,” and other times it’s “hmm, maybe not that.” I encourage student actors not to worry about editing before you suggest. Suggesting isn’t only about saying, “how about this.” It’s doing something and making propositions. That’s a fun place to be.

CV: How do you personally interpret the title Why I Fight? I know it has changed from the original “Team Wristband.” What does it mean from your perspective as reader and performer?

MT: I just got a sense from it that that even in the most difficult situations, Jamie continued to fight to find the forward path. Or to make it beneficial in some way. That even in some of the worst moments, he could still be transformed into something beautiful—and I use that word for any form of art whose aesthetic is beauty. It’s not about whether it’s good or pleasant. Jamie really treasured the fight for the underserved, non-privileged, troubled, and for those without rights. He was interested in social justice theatre as well as having an understanding of classic and contemporary literature and theatre. 

You can tell that even though he at times battles these institutions and figures, he wants to understand them. He wants the best for them as well as the best for himself. But it’s very tangled up inside. Sadly, at a certain point, the conversation becomes “I cannot fight more, I don’t want to fight for the me I will become because of my illness.”

It touches me knowing that decision came from a very intelligent place and was probably very difficult. For me that goes full circle back to my mother. Because of my mother, I always fight the assumption that there is some sort of weakness or selfish escape in suicide. So many of my old pieces were about that—without saying it explicitly. I don’t know how much of a DECISION, in upper case letters, it was, but the act became my mother’s. In my experience it was shoved under the carpet, and so it’s amazing being involved in this. It’s so clear to me how times have changed in terms of how it is talked about. Not everywhere. Not in all families and not in all situations. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult, but it is another part of one of the possibilities of our lives. And that decision of his not to fight any longer is just very courageous. 

CV: In terms of audience, who would you say would benefit the most from seeing a narrative that pushes against that adverse assumption that suicide equals weakness? 

MT: I think everybody. I’m not a fan of targeted audiences as I think that makes an assumption about who’s in that audience. Do we have to see someone’s need for something to know they’re in need of it? Someone who thinks they’re not involved in this issue at all may not know they’re involved until they see the piece. Or it may be in preparation for something down the road that is completely unexpected. It doesn’t have to be just about mental illness, about taking one’s own life, or the experience of the institution. It can be about where this fits into the society you live in. In your town, do you even know where these people are in these wards? You don’t know when your chemistry is going to switch. Or someone else’s. 

This production is both a performance and a conversation. It’s two acts, with a panel discussion. 

I think Jamie would love this. He would be frustrated if, after seeing a piece of theatre, the people he was with didn’t want to talk about it. Though it’s not about the performance: who was good, or what was the set like. He would want to talk about the ideas. It’s not just about “did you enjoy the performance.” What was it about? How does it relate to our lives, to the people we know?      

CV: What would you say would mark success with this work? Would it be facilitating this kind of discussion?

MT: Success to me is about whether the performance and the conversation engage the people who attend. Were we the hooks of the velcro their eyes needed? Did something stick? To me, that goes for any piece of art. To engage means that there’s an inherent conversation even if it’s not talking with someone. We use that metaphor, “did the piece speak to you?” Was it done well enough to bring the people watching in and to leave them wanting to understand more or do more? Which goes back to Brecht. He didn’t want people coming into the theatre, enjoying a show about the downtrodden masses, and then going out to some restaurant to eat steak. He wanted them to see the work and then do something about it. Maybe not right at that moment, but later. Clifford Odets, an American writer in the 1930s with a group theater, did a piece called Waiting for Lefty. At the end of the premiere performance, the cast on stage yelled “Strike, strike, strike!” and when they marched out the audience followed them into the street, shouting “Strike.” This was during the Depression. So that was a very clear moment of theatre actually engaging an audience. But it’s also a metaphor for, are you going to take something out with you after a performance? 

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