99 HISTORIES and Mental Health

AAP co-founder Stefanie Lau
I graduated from UCLA in 2000 and my first job out of college was working for the Mental Health Association of Los Angeles County (now Mental Health America of Los Angeles). I was an assistant in the development department. It was my job to write small grants, send thank you letters to donors and support the department in any way needed.

I had already started on my path to a career in theatre, but needed a paycheck and MHA was able to give me that. I didn’t know anything about mental health, so I had to learn a lot and needed to learn it quick. MHA is a non-profit organization treating people with severe mental illness and one of their most interesting programs to me was Project Return: The Next Step. It was run by and for people with mental illness, and provided peer-to-peer support and resources for individuals as they worked towards their goals of recovery.

Project Return’s director was Bill Compton. He was a theatre artist – an actor, director and producer in New York before coming to Los Angeles. It was in L.A. that Bill suffered a mental breakdown and became homeless. After spending months on the street, Bill made his way to a hospital emergency room and started on his road to recovery. By the time I met Bill, he was a nationally recognized advocate for those with mental illness and a leader in the movement to empower consumers in their own treatment and care. Bill and I bonded because he LOVED theatre. (He was an Ovation Voter and one year saw almost 200 shows!)

Bill was appointed the director of Project Return in 1994 and under his leadership, it grew from a network of 30 peer support groups to more than 100 throughout Los Angeles County.  They developed the “Friendship Line”, an award-winning non-crisis toll free number where people coping with mental illness could call to talk to a friendly, caring and understanding voice. Project Return trained members on advocacy, provided employment opportunities and had many other projects designed to empower consumers. They organized parties, social outings, and of course, lots of trips to see theatre. Project Return worked to create community and friendships in order to combat the isolation that many people with mental illness experience. (In 2010, the program spun-off to become its own non-profit organization, Project Return Peer Support Network.)

I spent less than a year at MHA before being hired by East West Players and making my full transition to arts administration. But I still saw Bill because he would attend every EWP production as an Ovation Voter. He always gave me a big hug and would enthusiastically tell me what shows he saw recently that I had to go see.

Bill passed away in 2007. I had moved on to Center Theatre Group the year before he died and had, regrettably, lost touch. I haven’t thought about my time at MHA for many years. But working on 99 Histories with Artists at Play has brought back a lot of memories of MHA and my co-workers, especially Bill and the consumers who were dedicated to supporting each other on their recovery.

I’m proud to be presenting a show that explores the stigma of mental illness. It’s a disease shrouded in ignorance when the people suffering from it need help and compassion. And I would like to think that if Bill were around today, he’d be the first one to make a reservation as an Ovation Voter.


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