Therapy Becomes Theater in ‘Wilderness’

10.20.16
The New York Times

Standing off to the side of a dusty, unpaved road through the high desert, taking a break from a late-summer hike, the producer Anne Hamburger listened as a small gaggle of teenagers walked her through a favorite joke.

With camp gear dangling from their enormous packs, the teenagers weren’t out there for recreation. They were clients in a wilderness therapy program like the one Ms. Hamburger sent her adolescent son to in 2014 — an episode that inspired her new documentary theater piece, “Wilderness,” in previews starting Friday, Oct. 21, at Abrons Arts Center.

She was spending a couple of days with them for research, and the teenagers — four boys and a transgender girl, part of Evoke Therapy Programs’ Group 6 — were lobbying her to put their grim, poignant little riddle in the show. They like to pose it to new arrivals when an airplane passes overhead.

“How far away do you think that plane is?” they’ll ask, gazing skyward.

The newbies inevitably interpret the question in terms of distance, but the whole point of the joke is time — how long it will be until they get out of this program and fly away home, back to the parents who sent them here for intensive help with intractable problems like drug use or depression, defiance or self-harm. The wry punch line is a ballpark figure: “12 to 15 weeks.”

 “I don’t think people would get it,” Ms. Hamburger, 63, said from under the shade of a sun hat just like the ones the teenagers wore, though for them the headgear was mandatory. A soft touch with the kids, she issued the verdict kindly. The joke might encapsulate what’s most urgent to them, but that doesn’t mean it would work onstage.
Of the story she is telling with “Wilderness,” Ms. Hamburger knows one side intimately: that of a parent so alarmed by her child’s behavior, so frightened by her inability to reach him, that she would grasp at the hope of wilderness therapy.

Two years ago, during a fraught summer when her teenage son was overwhelmed with depression and anxiety, and would leave the house only to visit his twin sister at work, Ms. Hamburger and her husband sent him to an Evoke program in Oregon. He spent 11 weeks there, and she believes it saved him — though healing for him and their family didn’t neatly end there.

“Looking back,” she said, “it takes a long time. Eleven weeks of wilderness won’t do it on its own.”

Ms. Hamburger wrote “Wilderness” with its director, Seth Bockley, 34, based on interviews with other families that have used wilderness therapy and people who work in such programs. At the center of the story are a half-dozen kids who have found themselves — generally not by choice and often without warning — removed from their regular lives, transported to this remote patch of southwestern Utah and dropped into a group of troubled strangers, where they may or may not begin to get better.

With actors playing teenage clients and the staff members, “Wilderness” is part drama, part straight documentary. For each child onstage, all based on real people, there is a real parent or set of parents on video or audio, filling in the story from another angle. The show traces the traumas and crises that led them here and gives a not-always-comforting glimpse of how their lives have played out afterward.

The teenagers Ms. Hamburger and Mr. Bockley met in Utah on an overnight trip this summer, when they went to gather some final video footage, aren’t portrayed in the show, but they have a lot in common with those who are. “Realistically,” a boy said one August afternoon, sitting on the ground under the stand of oaks where Group 6 had made its temporary camp, “we all went down the wrong path somehow.”

The lemon-yellow tarp where they would go that day for individual therapy was off in the distance, but they had communal therapy in a circle under the trees, where they spoke of pain and shame and fear with a sometimes startling vulnerability.

Sessions dealing with particularly sensitive issues began with a promise to keep one another’s secrets. “This group is kind of like Fight Club,” the girl said at the start of one of those. “You don’t talk about it.” (Evoke allowed a reporter and a photographer for The New York Times to accompany Ms. Hamburger and Mr. Bockley after they agreed to respect the teenagers’ privacy and not depict them in ways that would make them identifiable.)

Wilderness therapy has some of the crunchy-granola elements of camping, like the songs sung a cappella or to acoustic guitar that inspired the flavor of the music in “Wilderness.” There’s a lot of hiking, too, and arduous, compulsory work on emotional health, overseen by staff members who project an uncanny blend of laid-back kindness, firmness and hypervigilance. It isn’t cheap — $525 a day, on top of a nearly $3,000 flat fee for clothing and gear.

Free-range cattle roam this landscape, where phone calls come by satellite and bathrooms are nonexistent. When a teenager goes off to relieve himself, he has to shout his name every 10 seconds so the staff knows he hasn’t run away or hurt himself. Anyone deemed a suicide risk, like a girl in Group 6 who soothed herself by filling notebook after notebook with poetry and intricate drawings, has at least one staff member by her side at all times.

Some of the teenagers use the brims of their sun hats the way prisoners might use cell walls, making one little pen mark for every day spent here. At night, they bed down on the ground, each with a tarp for shelter. If the weather is nice — as it was one clear, moonless night this summer when Ms. Hamburger and Mr. Bockley joined them, spreading their sleeping bags out in a field — they don’t bother with tarps and simply sleep under the stars.

The teenagers have a term to describe the controversial way some of them got here, which begins when they’re awakened, often before dawn, by a stranger or two. Hired by their parents, these people bring them, usually by plane, to the wilderness program. The official name for this is transporting. The slang term is gooning, as in taken by goons.

Owen Jenney, Ms. Hamburger’s son, got gooned, though he said his goons turned out to be “really nice guys, actually.” He is 19 now, a freshman in college, and he remembers arriving in the wilderness frightened and confused, angrily convinced that sending him across the country to Oregon was “way out of proportion” to the situation.

Speaking by phone on a long weekend home from school, he said he has come to think differently — to see that he was “a complete emotional wreck” then, that this was “the only way” after other attempts at therapy had failed.

“It’s not a cure-all,” said Mr. Jenney, who went on to a residential treatment center after he completed the program. It helped him, though, to be away from phones and screens and everyday worries, to be forced to live in the moment, out in nature, and concentrate only on getting well.

“I was like, ‘This is a prison,’ but now that I look back at it, it was a freeing, freeing experience — something that I’d love to relive,” he said. With one difference, he added: This time he’d like to be able to shower.

There is a character in “Wilderness” known only as Mom. Ms. Hamburger wrote the role, and the voice sounds a lot like hers. Mom’s son has locked himself away in his room, and she is beside herself, fearing the worst. Filled with self-doubt, feeling like a failure as a mother, she wrestles with how to do the right thing for her son.

And that’s the other wilderness that the show is about — that place of darkness where a gulf separates children and parents, and there’s no knowing whether anyone will get out of it safely, or together.
 
Read the rest of the review here