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Visionary theater artist Andrea Purnell opens curtain on mental illness

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2013 - Mental health has long been a staple of stage and screen. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Next to Normal,”> and the 2012 Academy Award-winning “Silver Linings Playbook” are just a few titles exploring mental illness and its treatment.

St. Louis theater artist Andrea Purnell, 32, also dramatizes mental health. But her goal isn’t to sell tickets. It’s to educate. And her actors aren’t from central casting. She enjoys collaborating with people who live with mental health issues.

She's combined mental health and the arts in a number of contexts including her position as communications and artistic director for the Missouri Institute of Mental Health (MIMH). For her efforts and potential, she'll be honored with a Grand Center Visionary Award for Emerging Artist in a May 13 event at The Sheldon.

Purnell feels lucky that her job lets her brainstorm creative pursuits including a possible MIMH theater troupe, and an upcoming flashmob to publicize a series of “Let’s Talk About It” mental health events.

“I’m never bored,” Purnell says. “I get to spread my wings in many directions.”

Ticket to LA

As the youngest of six growing in University City then Florissant, Purnell and her friends spent hours practicing for a select audience.

“I’d tell my parents, ‘Come downstairs; we’re going to perform an En Vogue song for you',” she says.

Purnell’s childhood was a whirlwind of ballet, tap and jazz lessons, and parts in McCluer North High School plays. She remembers seeing her name among the cast of a one-act called “Money” and “screaming in the hallway” at school. In her senior year, her graduating class voted her “Best Actress.” But her participation in theater resulted in some pushback from other black students.

“Theater was considered very ‘white,’” Purnell remembers. “But I knew there was something about being on that stage and practicing and practicing, and having that moment and no one ever being able to take that away.”

Her parents, both Boeing employees, supported her artistic efforts. But when it came to paying her Fontbonne University tuition, they laid down the law -- no theater degree -- so she majored in communications. Then, after college, they funded the journey to find her dream.

“My graduation gift from my parents was a ticket to LA,” Purnell says. “I was going to move away and never come back.”

‘Pennies’ pays off

Purnell led a busy life in Los Angeles in the early-to-mid 2000s. Like many people in the arts, she multi-tasked to survive.

“I waited tables at night, I was a loan officer and notary during the day, and I worked at the Groundlings Theatre on the weekends,” Purnell says.

Through her efforts as a stage manager at the Groundlings improv and sketch comedy theater, Purnell rubbed elbows with Will Farrell, Lisa Kudrow and “just about all the women in ‘Bridesmaids.’”

“It was a cool experience to be around those people you see on TV now,” she says.

Her job in the loan industry took her to San Diego, where she found an even more exciting theater community and many chances to perform on stage. But after a year, she felt called back to St. Louis when her grandmother got sick. Shortly after her grandmother died, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away last year.

“It was beautiful, in a sense, because I got to come home and spend time with them,” Purnell says.

While based in her home town, Purnell also took advantage of stage opportunities not only in St. Louis but abroad. Her local roles included Camilla, the tempestuous sister in the 1950s St. Louis-based play “Seamstress of St. Francis Street.” Purnell was cast for the same part when the play was adapted for the film “Pennies for the Boatman,” which won a Madrid International Film Festival award.

The “Pennies” experience led to an opportunity in Lyon, France, where she staged the role of Citizen in “Quelque Chose Est Rouge,” a play about St. Louis’ Pruitt-Igoe projects.

“Pennies” also took her to the Ghanian capital of Acra in 2010. While performing “Pennies” and teaching student workshops there, she was compelled by a small group of girls communicating with their hands to learn more about the stigma of deafness in West Africa.

“It’s like a curse, like your parents did something wrong,” Purnell says. “Many of the young girls don’t make it past third or fourth grade, and prostitution is what they mostly end up doing.”

Once back in St. Louis, many people would have left behind all thoughts of a few deaf girls a world away. But not Purnell. She enrolled in St. Louis Community College’s program for deaf communication, intending to complete her studies in 2015.

“The beauty of moving your hands is like an art,” she says.

Flashmobbing for mental health

Interning at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission and graduating from RAC’s Community Arts Training program has broadened Purnell’s local arts network in recent years. But it was a prior meeting with recruiters for Provident social services at a job fair that led her into the mental health field.

In 2008, Purnell began working with at-risk students through a Provident program. But efforts to talk with them about finishing high school or getting a job often turned into counseling sessions, concerning more pressing problems.

“They would say, ‘But I’m hungry’ or ‘My baby’s due in a few weeks,’” Purnell recalls.

Purnell encouraged them to tell their stories in a production for the program’s graduation. “Hear My Cry” resulted in tears from performers, their parents and other students.

“It gave them confidence, kind of a ‘Hey, you can do this,’ and it changed their lives,” she says.

The play spawned more such productions, through collaborations with Harris-Stowe University and other organizations. About a year ago, Purnell’s work landed her the job with the Missouri Institute of Mental Health, which, in 2010 became an arm of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Purnell’s projects there have included publicizing MIMH’s 50th anniversary, promoting its Mental Health First AID program, and a creating a web conference about mental illness in the African-American community called “Deep Dark Secret.”

Future goals include forming a mental health theater troupe involving residents, and also working with kids to produce in-school performances.

“I’d love to see us in different schools doing theater pieces around the needs of the students,” Purnell says.

In the short term, she’s launched a lively pop-up promotion -- a mental health flashmob -- for a lecture series. The preview features a medley of songs punctuated by “Talk about it, talk about it,” from the 1980 disco hit “Funkytown,” in an effort to end the silence around mental illness.

Folks who like to move to the music (you don’t have to consider yourself a “dancer”) are invited to join the flashmob, set to perform from June through the Oct. 6-12 Mental Health Awareness Week. The next rehearsals take place May 10 and 16 at Studio 42 in Crestwood. Contact Purnell by email to sign up.

'Take a leap'

Purnell’s talents are also in demand within her circle of friends. Harris-Stowe counselor Latonia Collins-Smith asked Purnell to dance at her 2010 wedding. Though Purnell describes herself as too busy to have a significant other in her own life right now, she embraced the opportunity to celebrate her friend’s commitment.

“She chose ‘So In Love’ by Brian McKnight and choreographed the dance along with a live singer and live band,” Collins-Smith says. “I was so amazed by her creativity and ability.”

“Amazing” is also how Purnell’s friend, dance studio owner Sara Burke describes Purnell’s talents and her dedication to underserved populations.

“She’s taking the arts to a new level to make a difference,” Burke says. “I am in awe of her.”

Purnell has now set a goal of bringing her deaf communication skills back to the place that inspired them: Ghana. She’s planning a trip later this year to strengthen her connections. Eventually, she wants to create work around mental health for the deaf community there. It’s an ambitious project that seems a perfect fit for Purnell’s broad vision.

“I guess I look for the hardest mountains to climb,” Purnell says. “And then I just take a leap.”

Further resources

Chicago’s Erasing the Distance theater company addresses mental health.

UK’s Stepping Out Theatre has been staging mental health issues since 1997.

Films with a theme of mental illness.

New Line stages local production of "Next to Normal."

Grand Center Visionary Awards

Awardees also include Carol Voss: Major Contributor to the Arts; Lynn Rubright: Outstanding Arts Educator; Lydia Ruffin: Successful Working Artist; Agnes Wilcox: Outstanding Arts Professional, and Joanne Kohn: Lifetime Achievement.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.