Theatre artist Haley Honeman works to break the silence around suicide

Haley Honeman is a theatre artist who grew up rural Fergus Falls, Minnesota. She attended the University of Minnesota Twin Cities where she earned a degree in theatre arts with a minor in Spanish, then participated in a program on global development in Ecuador where she had laughter therapy classes with senior citizens and apprenticed under a clown. She worked in Mexico at a language school that focused on project-based learning, integrating theatre practices into the curriculum, then attended Arizona State University where she earned an MFA in Theatre for Youth. She now teaches classes for students in schools and at local arts centers.

Her focus, she says, has always been on “holistic, collaborative arts practice.” But instead of the typical treatment of youth theatre – pick a play, hold auditions and casting for the roles, then hold practices and put on the show – Honeman focuses on working with the kids, producing the show together with them, focusing on the artistry. But, she says, there are a lot of misconceptions attached to describing herself as a youth theatre artist.

“There are a lot of who umbrella [our work under] youth and community, but when everyone thinks ‘youth’ they think ‘children’s theater,'” she explains. “But we see ourselves working with the aging community as well, and I’ve done work at children’s hospitals.”

A couple of years ago she began investigating the theatrical representation of mental illness –what it looked like in children’s theatre and in what ways that led to stereotypes and stigma and what ways that addressed it. After returning to Minnesota she was connected with Springboard for the Arts’ Fergus Falls office and selected for a Hinge Arts Residency that explored the issues of mental health and wellness. She partnered with a visual artist and three mental health organizations on a pop-up gallery and immersive performance piece and addressed student questions like, “What does wellness mean to you?” and “What do you want to share with others based on that?”

This past year, one of those organizations – a peer-led organization called Wellness in the Woods – contacted her expressing interest in doing something that addresses suicide in the area. Suicide rates in the United States have been increasing since the year 2000, with particularly high suicide rates among whites and Native Americans in rural areas. In Minnesota in 2015, suicide by men reached a record high.

With support from an arts-based community development grant, Honeman began work on the Acts of Solace Project.

Acts of Solace is a documentary theatre piece for which Honeman led story circles and interviewed more than 70 people from central rural Minnesota, asking about some of the impacts of suicide on their lives or in their communities. From that she edited together monologues addressing the topic with the goal of addressing stigma and breaking silence about suicide.

Throughout her interviews, she says, recurring feelings of shame, judgment, grief, and loneliness were expressed, all of which she tried to capture in the monologues. People also talked about resources not being available to them in these rural areas, and the further stigma of not being to access those resources. (Which is why a service like TXT4Life has had a huge impact in these areas.) Also those living in reservations have a very specific experience in talking about how suicide affects their population, with generational trauma contributing to a cyclical hopelessness.

“The main objective is just to show to people who think that it’s not their problem that it is their problem,” says Honeman. “Suicide impacts so many veterans, mothers, fathers, teens, refugees, everybody, and it is our responsibility. The stigma and our avoidance of it is not going to make it go away.”

Honeman held a staged reading of the play in February in order to get feedback and further hone the work.

“I still have a lot to think about it when working on it,” she says. “It’s a hard play to end. Solutions can feel a little bit didactic so I’m still finishing the ending of it, but I think the personal stories are really powerful.”

The plan is to tour the piece around a rural five-county region in central Minnesota in June and July.

This kind of collaborative work between community artists and organizations is something Honeman believes is a tremendous value and encourages non-arts organizations to pursue it.

“This kind of community-based work with organizations takes a certain type of organization that is willing to take that leap of faith, because it might be outside of the way they’re used to working or when people think of the arts a lot of people think that’s an enigma that they don’t really do, but there are a lot of skills that we as artists can offer in collaboration and that collaborative skill is important to learn,” she says. “For me as an artist, I’ve been learning really how to articulate what this work is in an accessible way, and that’s important.”

(1) How do you like to collaborate?
I like to have conversations about mutual goals and shared envisioning time.

(2) How do you a start a project?
I think some projects have been fueled by my own interests and desires and curiosity and some are fueled by my desire and willingness to come on board [with another project].

(3) How do you talk about your value?
I usually like to talk about creating space for dialogue and I like to think of theatre as a space of heightened attention, so I think my ability to direct focus is where the value comes in and the way I know how to do that in engaging ways is part of my value as a theatre artist.

(4) How do you define success?
Usually I think that means that the process has felt important and enjoyable even if there have been difficult moments, especially in the kind of work. I do I think it’s going to be uncomfortable at times but that’s okay.

(5) How do you fund your work?
I’ve had some grants, but working as a teaching artist and in classroom spaces gives me some flexible gigs where I can work on other projects but also have a steady source of income.