When Ann-Charlotte Robinson’s son Will committed suicide in January at the age of 17, her longtime friend Tom Sweitzer felt a call to reach out to teens with a message of hope through music.
With Robinson’s participation, Sweitzer, a well-known local music therapist and his colleague Cedric Dimapilis created a rock opera, “A Will to Survive,” that is both a tribute to Will and a call to teens that they are not alone in their struggles with mental health or social struggles. The producers have scheduled a series of public performances throughout October (starting this Sunday), and the show is also set to run for students at all Loudoun high schools throughout the next 18 months.
The spark was ignited, Sweitzer said, when he read a moving letter that Robinson and her husband had written to Will at his funeral, held at the packed Trinity Episcopal Church in Upperville.
“[Will] felt so much for the world. … He everyday went to school to make everybody happy. He was the first one to put his arm around somebody. He did not have the facility inside of himself to do it for himself,” Sweitzer said. “It was in that moment at Trinity Church where I’m standing at the pulpit reading in front of hundreds and hundreds of people and hundreds and hundreds of teenagers. And it was in that moment that I thought to myself: I have to do something. I have the tools. I have the way.”
Sweitzer and Dimapilis are both therapists at A Place to Be in Middleburg, which treats an increasing number of teens with mental health issues. The goal was to give the show an edge that would be engaging to high school students and avoid the classic anti-bullying assembly that gets eye rolls from students. Dimapilis tapped into the teen zeitgeist with his passion for indie music, moving away from the poppy, catchy songs in A Place to Be’s well-known “Behind The Label” show designed for middle schoolers.
“‘A Will to Survive’ encapsulates the contemporary teenage angsty soundtrack of their daily life in a rock opera,” Dimapilis said. “What I wanted to bring differently were songs of angst that teenagers and adults could relate to, songs that sound similar to their musical taste. Many of the influences of sound and tone come from bands/artists I listen to that this generation relates to, such as M83, My Chemical Romance, The Temper Trap [and] The Casualties.”
Sweitzer and Dimapilis conducted interviews with dozens of teens, including Will’s friends, several of whom have been cast in the show. The cast is made up of 16 teens, most of whom attend Loudoun schools. Many of the actors are clients of A Place to Be and some are living with depression and anxiety. But all of the performers are talented musicians and were cast for their musical skill, Sweitzer said.
“It is as professional as you’re going to get when it comes to teenage shows.” Sweitzer said.
The co-authors have worked to handle the teen experience—sometimes with humor and sometimes with pathos. The score includes a song dedicated to the intense pressure to succeed that many middle and upper class teens are surrounded by, while others focus on the all-consuming role technology plays, including the song “Text Me” about a teen girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend.
For both Sweitzer and Robinson, the goal is to launch an open conversation about mental illness, to convey the sense that teens are not alone and to encourage them to reach out to their peers and trusted adults.
For Robinson, getting involved with the play has been a way to reach out to teens and has also become part of her healing process. Robinson gave Sweitzer access to Will’s journals and, after some initial hesitation, agreed to take a role in the play.
“I love performing. I love being on stage. It’s something that’s deeply within me anyway. And then to have the opportunity to connect and communicate through this art form that I love with this very important message to a very important constituency, that combination seemed irresistible,” Robinson said. “There are moments in rehearsal that my breath catches in my throat or my heart, and that’s OK because it’s also part of the process. … Working with these kids is an inspiration and it fills some of the void for me to be doing this with them.”
Both Sweitzer and Robinson are hopeful that the play will take on a life beyond Loudoun. And while the play is a tribute to a gifted young person who lost his battle with mental illness, the message is intended to be more far-reaching.
“Will and his life is the thread, but it is not about suicide,” Sweitzer said. “It’s about hope. It’s about no matter who you are as a teenager, reaching out to somebody is never too late.”
“A Will to Survive” debuts 2-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2, at the Hill School, 130 S. Madison St., Middleburg. Admission is $10.
Upcoming public performances, in cooperation with Loudoun County Public Schools, are: at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at Loudoun Valley High School; Saturday, Oct. 22, at Woodgrove High School; and Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Heritage High School. Admission is free for these shows. The show is recommended for high school-aged youth, but may be appropriate for mature middle-schoolers with parents.