Arts feature: 'That's Just Crazy'

Jim Fischer
Columbus Alive

Robbie Nance is all about finding the humor in a complete psychotic break.

Nance's one-person show, “That's Just Crazy,” will explore some of the stigma surrounding mental health, as viewed through the prism of his experience. Nance, who recently left Shadowbox Live for another job after 17 years as a performer with the company, was working at Shadowbox's Newport, Kentucky, location, when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia following a psychotic episode about 10 years ago.

“In my younger years — my teens and early 20s — I always struggled with depression. I had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and a variety of things, but it all really came to a head about 10 [or] 11 years ago,” said Nance, a Groveport native. “I had a complete psychotic break. I was hallucinating, hearing voices, and got swept up into this delusional thought process, all centered around a plot where people were after me [and I was] receiving messages from the future. It was pretty extreme.”

An inpatient hospital stay and a regimen of medication and therapy followed.

“My prognosis was not good. I was being told I'd be taking meds for the rest of my life and maybe if I was lucky I could hold a part-time job. I was fortunate to find a doctor who did not have that attitude, who shared my idea of, ‘Let's put our energy into making that prognosis wrong,'” he said.

Encouragement from his doctor and therapist, as well as the support of his parents, his now-fiance and Shadowbox performer Leah Haviland (“We had only been together a year when this happened,” Nance said, adding, “She deserves like the biggest trophy in the world”) and his friends and co-performers at Shadowbox helped him along in his journey.

“There was definitely some self-pity involved,” he said. “My imagination has always been my best friend. I kinda lived in my own head when I was a kid, and to have my imagination and my mind turn on me, which is what it felt like, and become my worst enemy in the world, was heartbreaking.

“I still have moments that I have to remind myself that's its stupid to feel sorry for myself. The experience from person to person is as unique as the person themselves. I consider myself extremely lucky.”

For six years, in consultation with his doctor, Nance has dealt with his illness without medication, using coping mechanisms he's acquired through therapy. Through that time, he has worked to try and come up with a way to share what he has gone through and continues to live with every day. “That's Just Crazy” is one such way.

“A large part of the show is me talking about what my reality was like at that time. In some cases, memory loss does happen. There are short periods of [missing] time, but the vast majority I remember plain as day,” Nance said. “And, quite honestly, some of it is hilarious [or] ridiculous. I laugh at a lot of this stuff and I hope maybe some other people might laugh at it, too.”

The show, primarily featuring storytelling, also includes five piano compositions from that period in his life. The pieces are based on “musical hallucinations,” which Nance described by saying, “[It's] like if you have a song stuck in your head, but everyone in the world is also screaming it at you.” He said the best way of coping with these sounds was to find a piano and play along. He eventually fleshed these melodies out into full-fledged compositions.

Nance said “That's Just Crazy” also delves into how he feels now.

“There are varying degrees of ‘better.' I still have days when I do hear voices, and there are some things that are difficult for me to do,” he said. “During particularly stressful times, sometimes if I push myself too hard, hallucinations can come into play. I can start getting lost in my mind when I'm really stressed out, and sometimes the ideas that are rolling around in there aren't really healthy.”

Nance admitted that, while the show is something he wants to do and has been encouraged to do for some time now, he previously backed away from actually taking it to the stage.

“It's deeply personal and talks about a unique experience,” Nance said. “Even right now I'm having that little twinge of, ‘I hope this is a good thing.'”

Ultimately, the benefit of sharing his story, coupled with his desire to address misconceptions about mental health, won out.

“I feel like one of the biggest reasons stigmas about mental health exist is because so few people are willing to talk openly about it,” Nance said. “That's really kind of the spirit of this whole show.”

Nance said 100 percent of the ticket sales from the show will be donated to the Columbus office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Shadowbox Live Backstage Bistro

8 p.m. Tuesday, May 23

503 S. Front St., Brewery District