“Unplugged” to cover difficult issues with musical act
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Milwaukee artist Paul McComas and singer Maya Kuper will tackle serious, relevant issues during their performance “Unplugged” Tuesday, but the way they present those problems will be far from conventional.
Based on McComas’ novel of the same name, “Unplugged” tells the story of Dayna Clay, a successful 27-year-old musician struggling to stay out of the infamous 27 Club, a group of famous musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who all died at age 27. Using theater and rock music, McComas and Kuper show Dayna’s internal battle to overcome past sexual violence and to heal her mental health in 12 scenes.
The Center for Peacemaking and the Marquette Counseling Center are sponsoring the event, which will take place at 7 p.m. in the Henke Lounge of the Alumni Memorial Union.
“This message, I think, is so important on campus, and a lot of these issues go unspoken about mental health, abuse and sexual violence,” said Patrick Kennelly, director of the Center for Peacemaking.
For the Counseling Center, “Unplugged” offers a way of delivering information in a way that is more engaging than traditional methods.
“(The Counseling Center is) excited by the opportunity to address these issues and the stigma that surrounds them with ‘Unplugged,’” said Nicholas Jenkins, a counselor and coordinator of mental health advocacy in the Counseling Center. “Anytime we can address these issues outside of a lecture people get more out of it and they can talk about better than with just a powerpoint.”
Marquette tries to overcome this silence with its campaign to promote sexual violence awareness, implemented after the sexual assault allegations involving four student athletes in 2011. The athletic department and the Department of Public Safety’s failure to properly report the incidents made front page headlines in The Chicago Tribune.
For McComas, however, the work embodies issues he struggled with and promoted a better understanding of for decades. It began began with the death of his girlfriend.
“My first girlfriend, Julia, was raped by a stranger in an alley in Milwaukee,” McComas said, “and six months afterwards she stepped off a roof and killed herself. I’m (content) that that is not the end of Julia’s story.”
Another important influence was the untimely death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain in 1994. The famous songwriter’s death inspired McComas to start Rock Against Depression, a series of Nirvana tribute concerts from 1995 to 1999. They promoted a better understanding of the problems surrounding depression, which led to the artist’s early death at 27, and the search for help with mental illnesses.
“It was a way of delivering information about warning signs,” McComas said, “and people would come up after shows and say, ‘You guys saved my life tonight.’”
These two life-changing events and McComas’ following work influenced the creation of the novel, “Unplugged,” its main character, and the work he continued to do with the book over the past 12 years.
“It’s really my heart and soul,” McComas said. “You know, I remember thinking when it got published, not that I’m in any rush to die, but that if I get hit by a bus in the street, at least it’s out there.”
McComas continues to struggle with clinical depression. His deep commitment to these issues led to his current work on “Unplugged” and his collaboration with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. McComas is a member of RAINN’s Speakers Bureau, and all proceeds from the books and CDs sold at “Unplugged” shows go to RAINN.
Also a musician, McComas found an important part of telling Dayna’s story was playing the songs she would have written.
“Since she was fictitious, I had to create her work for her,” McComas said.
To give Dayna a voice, he found Chicago singer Maya Kuper, who has collaborated with him for the past five years.
“She is the Dayna Clay I’ve always dreamed of,” McComas said.
As for Kuper, who has also written and added songs to Dayna’s catalog, the mission of “Unplugged” is front and center.
“What I can do is make music and contribute to (RAINN’s) cause and promote issues that are important to everyone, everywhere” Kuper said.
She said these issues are especially important on college campuses.
“It’s become a political issue as well,” Kuper said, “because RAINN delivered a report to the White House about what the government should do to prevent sexual violence on college campuses.”
In order for a real impact to be made, McComas believes people need to be able to talk about these issues openly. They are complex and often difficult to speak about for the general population and survivors because of a stigma against mental health.
“We’re bridging some gap and that’s what my life’s work is … trying to combine the arts and social healing,” McComas said.