Fringe Festival KC is known for its alternative art concepts, and Liz Kerlin’s work fits the bill. Kerlin, 28, has been a theater kid since she was 4 years old. Now, she’s written her first play, Hope Help Line — a respectfully comedic approach to a suicide hotline.
When an operator receives a call from a man who has used the hotline approximately 300 times in his life, she’s left wondering if anyone ever gets better. The play explores the irony of what it looks like when a woman whose job it is to give help to others needs help herself.
We spoke with Kerlin about what it’s like to be a first-time writer and how she approaches such a serious topic through a comedic lens.
How did you decide you were ready to write your own play?
I always wanted to [write], but I was too freaked out. It’s a scary thing to put yourself out there. I finally gave it a shot; I took a playwriting class at The Living Room Theatre. I’d kind of write some short stories and some scenes for myself, just to entertain myself at home. I finally got fed up that I wasn’t getting the work I wanted to get in the theater industry in Kansas City. I knew in order to combat that, I probably had to start generating my own material. I finally decided that I had to give this a shot. It may go sideways, but I won’t know unless I try. It was just basically out of necessity. A lot of people who have long-standing careers in the arts have to have a generative mindset and an eye toward creating their own content.
Going from acting on stage to writing for the stage, how does your mindset change?
Now that I’m doing it, it feels a lot easier to be writing. You do have the safety of being stuck behind your keyboard, whereas when you’re performing, it’s a super vulnerable place to be … It was a shift away from looking at performance and other mediums as something I had to get other people’s help with … It really kind of did come from me thinking of my career as more of a do-it-yourself project and not waiting around for anybody else.
What connection do you have to mental health, and why did you want to write about it?
I have mental health diagnoses myself, but I also have been working in the mental health field for the last four years. I worked at a substance abuse treatment facility for adults for three years, and currently I work for the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA). I love learning about mental health, I love working in the mental health field, I love the unique challenges and perspectives that it gives me. I also have a lot of people in my life who have struggled with suicidal thoughts or who have died by suicide, so that is something that’s always on my mind.
Why was it important to you that the play was a comedy?
I wanted to approach that subject matter through the lens of comedy so that it’s something we all feel comfortable enough to talk about. A lot of times for the things that are hardest for us to vocalize, using comedy lifts the tension and makes it easier for us to connect with that subject matter. For me, this is the only way I know how to dive into stuff like this. I love comedy, I always have. Any time I’ve ever tried to wrap my head around something big, comedy has been my way in.
Exploring a topic like suicide through comedy could be off-putting to some people. Have you encountered anyone who finds the comedic lens too morbid?
I have not yet, but that is a completely valid point of view. If they told me they didn’t think it was appropriate, I’d completely understand. We do have a trigger warning on all of our materials. I’ve made it very clear that even though this is a comedy, we do discuss some pretty heavy subject matter and that might not be appropriate for everybody.
As a writer, how do you balance making people laugh with calling attention to a serious issue?
I didn’t get them to actually read the script, but I consulted with about half a dozen community mental health agencies — some of them specifically focused on suicide prevention, some of them offering general mental health services. I talked about the things that are helpful or problematic to portray in stories like this. Something else that helped me — the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention actually released this year for the first time their official guidelines for portraying suicidal thoughts and behavior in media. That came at a really cool time for me because then I had this sort of checklist from people who really understand this subject matter and how it matters to portray it in media. It really helped me balance what I wanted to say with my own voice versus what is actually helpful for people to see. I didn’t try to draw that line on my own.
What is the intended message of Hope Help Line?
Number one: remember that it’s okay to ask for help, no matter what you’re going through, because there’s somebody out there who can help you navigate that. The other thing to remember, on the flip side of that, is that we’re always capable of helping other people, even when we feel incapable or we feel worthless or whatever it is we might be feeling that keeps us from reaching out and feeling empowered to help others. We’re always capable of helping other people, and that’s something I think is really important for people to internalize.
GO: Unicorn Theatre, Levin Stage. 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. Shows run July 20, 21, 24, 26 and 27. Times vary. $10. kcfringe.org.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “home” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.