Paul McComas and Maya Kuper turned the pages of the book Unplugged into a benefit performance at Evanston's Live 27 on Oct. 21.
McComas' novel Unplugged, published in 2002, tells the story of troubled 27-year-old bisexual, alternative rocker and rape survivor Dayna Clay. While at the height of her musical career, Clay runs out mid-song on the last night of her tour. Going home to take her own life, natures steps in to save her. Disappearing on a solitary journey into the South Dakota Badlands, Clay undergoes a spiritual transformation as she faces the subsequent struggle with depression, secures inner peace, and reaches out to others who are in crisis.
"I like to think that people who read the book or see the show, if they're religious they'll say it's the hand of god; if they're spiritual they'll say it's the positive force of nature and our connection with all life; if they're agnostic or atheist they might say she got that doctor and those medications and found someone to love," said McComas. "And they're all right."
McComas and Kuper adapt the novel into a 75-minute performance through 14 alternating scenes and songs, setting out to combat rape, despair, depression and suicide. Given the show's length, the focus is mostly on the first two-thirds of the almost 300-page book. The duo dressed in matching outfits to convey their musical partnership and the dual portrayal of the protagonist throughout the show. While McComas authored the storyline and narrates the scenes from his pages, Chicago singer-songwriter and keyboardist Kuper voices Clay. Both share their musical talents.
"This is not just a niche issue," Kuper said on "Unplugged's" themes of mental illness, sexual assault and rape. "This affects everyone and it's important to everyone and yet we never talk about it because it's hard to talk about. It can be painful to talk about, so when we bring these issues up in the context of the show we provide a venue for people to talk about the things that are painful to talk about and hopefully its cathartic."
The intention the duo said is to be educational and entertaining. "Unplugged" is a work inspired by McComas' first girlfriend Julia, an aspiring actor and musician who was raped at 20 years-old and took her own life by stepping off a tall building at 21.
"That is a key mission of the story: to save today's and tomorrow's Julias; to give them the chance to segue from victims into survivors," said McComas.
Touring the show nationally since March, McComas points out the venue was quite fitting as Clay's story begins at 27-years-old and she makes it to 28. Live 27 has pictures of musical legends who died at 27, including Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse, among others.
Multi-instrumentalist Mike Holden, playing the bass, guitar and flute, and Justin Marsh on the drums joined McComas and Kuper for the performance.
"At this point it feels so energized when we perform it and I think the music adds so much to the landscape of the story in a way that words cant really describe," said Holden who has performed the show six times. "That's why I got into music because of the ability to do that. The picture it's able to paint along with the words is pretty incredible."
"It was incredible to see how much it meant to everyone that was here," said Marsh who made his "Unplugged" debut. "It's definitely going to help me grow as a person just to see all these people that are fighting the good fight."
The performance's music ranged from acoustic, to Nirvana-influenced rock, happy folk and funk. The newly written woman-to-woman love song titled "Jack-o'-Lantern" premiered. A collaboration between McComas and Kuper, the song comes from the pages of Unplugged.
"I think we've given them [the audience] some metaphors and some ways of thinking about these issues that maybe they haven't thought about or maybe haven't been able to articulate or visualize and that's what a narrative with characters in it helps you do," said McComas. "They got to experience her lowest lows and some of her highest highs and her self-expression through her medium and they know her like a real person."
All year, "Unplugged" raises awareness and funds for Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network ( RAINN ), co-founded by Tori Amos. McComas has worked with RAINN for 12 years and serves on its National Leadership Council and Speakers Bureau. For this particular performanc,e the proceeds were split with former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy's ( D-Rhode Island ) non-profit One Mind, supporting mental health and brain health advocacy.
Kennedy introduced the show and spoke on behalf of his organization and the cause. Dr. Vicki Seglin, a private practitioner in clinical psychology who teaches at Northwestern University, Gideon Litherland of Skokie's Turning Point Behavioral Health Care Center, and Lyzanne Trevino and Melissa Harrington of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago and Chicago Rape Crisis Hotline answered audience questions regarding mental health during the post-show talkback.
"It would be irresponsible of us not to have a talkback after the show where we help people deal with whatever it is that we brought up to the surface by starting a discussion," said Kuper.
For more information and to hear the music of "Unplugged," visit daynaclay.bandcamp.com/ .