Adam Strauss performs The Mushroom Cure at The Marsh Berkeley
(photo by Michael Courier)
Despite his struggles with OCD, actor/playwright Adam Strauss clearly wants us to know that he is okay. Why else would he title his new solo piece “Adam Strauss Is Not Unhappy”? Strauss is currently performing that show in repertory with a return engagement of his hit show, The Mushroom Cure, at The Marsh Berkeley on weekends through May 27th. The Mushroom Cure is the true tale of Strauss’s hilarious, harrowing, and heartrending attempts to treat his debilitating OCD with psychedelics. It was well-received Off-Broadway, where it was named Critics’ Pick by Time Out New York and hailed by The New York Times as “mining a great deal of laughter from disabling pain” before moving to San Francisco for an extended run. Adam Strauss Is Not Unhappy is an unscripted comedic solo show which the New York-based performer describes as “an entirely unguarded exploration of heartbreak, addiction, obsession, loneliness and other hilarious things.”
I spoke with Strauss by phone earlier this week about these two very different shows and how each one came to be. We talked about how misunderstood OCD is, his compulsion for honesty in his work, and the terrors of performing an unscripted show. In conversation, he is naturally engaging and sharply humorous, even as his creative brain tends to take him off on all manner of fascinating tangents. Were you to run into him at a party, he is the guy you most definitely would want to talk to. The following has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
This isn’t your first time working at The Marsh. How did you originally connect with them?
MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which actually sponsors the show and is the largest and oldest psychedelic research and advocacy organization, they were having a conference in Oakland in the Spring of 2017 called “Psychedelic Science.” They booked me to perform, not The Mushroom Cure, but standup comedy on psychedelic topics and themes. I’m probably one of the few people (with the growing mainstreaming of psychedelics, there are probably more now) who actually have a lot of standup material about psychedelics. So I figured “Well I’m gonna be coming out to the Bay Area to do this performance at this conference, so I might as well line up a few performances of The Mushroom Cure. Gail Schickele, who runs a company called Sage Artists [and is now host of MarshStream’s Solo Arts Heal series] had seen it so I reached out to her and she connected me with The Marsh, vouched for the show, and put me in touch with Stephanie Weisman (Director and Founder of The Marsh).
Initially I think it was maybe a two-month run, but it got extended a few times in the spring and summer of 2017, and that started what has been an ongoing and very positive association with The Marsh. There’s no other solo theater organization that I’m aware of in this country, certainly not in New York, and they’ve been doing it for 30 years. They really pioneered this sort of model of giving solo artists the platform and support to do these shows. They do vary, but I’d say a common theme seems to be these intensely autobiographical and revealing and vulnerable solo shows.
Speaking of revealing and vulnerable, when you first did Mushroom Cure, did you have any hesitancy in sharing your own very personal journey?
Yeah, there was hesitation, but it wasn’t really around psychedelics, even though I first started doing this show in 2012 and the climate around psychedelics was very different then. I would tell people the premise of my show – you know that I used psychedelics to treat my OCD – and people just couldn’t wrap their heads around it. I’d get responses like “Wait, but psychedelics give you mental illness. Why would you ….?” So there was some concern about that, even a little bit legally, though not too much, because frankly it’s not like I’m a celebrity [laughs] so it wasn’t like it was gonna be super high-profile when I was contemplating this in 2012. But I hadn’t really heard anyone publicly talk about their psychedelic use at this level of detail.
The far bigger fear was about revealing my OCD. I realized if I really wanted to take people on this journey, I had to be very open about the OCD. It wasn’t enough to just say “I have OCD.” You know, it’s the cliché “show-don’t-tell.” I really had to bring them into what it is like to be in an OCD crisis. I had a great deal of shame about it. People with OCD have self-awareness, so if you ask someone, “Is it rational to wash your hands for two hours?” they’ll say, “No, absolutely not. I wish I could stop.” And yet, there’s some weird stuff going on in the brain of people with OCD, there’s this discrepancy between what we know rationally to be true, and what feels true to us.
So, yeah, there was a lot of shame around that. The period I depict is the beginning of my journey through sort of the, not the conclusion because I’m still on the journey, but to the point where I got a lot of relief from OCD. The starting point of the OCD was absolutely debilitating, it was a life-or-death struggle. What that meant in practice is me losing hours and hours, virtually every single day immersed in these ultimately trivial rituals so there was a lot of shame around sharing this stuff, this crazy, crazy behavior.
My first time doing this show, I’d been doing standup for a little while, but I’d never done anything like this before so I invited everyone I knew in New York. [laughs] All my friends turned out so that made it feel even more vulnerable. It was sort of a confession to people who knew me, but did not know about this, because there is so much shame around OCD. And what was incredible to me about that performance, and that I didn’t anticipate, is the feeling of liberation I had just sharing this. And also how deeply people related to it. Not people necessarily who have OCD, though I did have some friends who said, “Wow, I didn’t know you had that and I actually have it, too.”
But more generally there’s something about really, really sharing our deepest vulnerabilities that I think makes it universally relatable. Because even if you don’t have OCD, you have something. It may not rise to the level of a debilitating mental illness, but we all have something that we have shame around, that we try to keep a secret, that I broadly put in the category of addictions or addictive patterns, whether it’s watching too much Netflix or binging on Ben & Jerry’s or whatever. What I heard from people after this first performance was it made them feel less alone in their own struggle, and in an odd way, or maybe not that odd, gave them hope. Not just because my story is a story of healing, though imperfect healing, but also hope in the sense that we can be open about this stuff, and it’ll be okay.
Adam Strauss performs The Mushroom Cure at The Marsh Berkeley
(photo by Carla Paredes)
That really resonates for me because someone close to me was diagnosed with OCD about 20 years ago, and I remember at the time we were all talking about it in hushed tones, just because we didn’t understand it.
Yeah, OCD I think is in a somewhat uniquely disadvantaged position (though this is changing a little bit), in popular conception relative to other mental illnesses. And I will say as a side note I don’t love the term “mental illnesses,” but I don’t have a better term so that’s the one I use. But the whole idea of “Oh, it’s the same as, you know, diabetes. It’s a chemical imbalance.”? First of all, the chemical imbalance theory has actually been disproven. That’s not to say there aren’t neurological, neurochemical differences between people who have depression or schizophrenia or OCD, but as a causative mechanism? Studies have shown that some people with depression have lower-than-average serotonin, but some people with depression have higher-than-average serotonin. So it’s not that simple. Ultimately, that’s a narrative that was plausible and the drug companies really advanced because it helped them move product.
The reason I don’t love the term mental illness is to me there is an existential dimension to these conditions that a broken ankle does not have. I get the benefit of kind of saying “Oh, it’s the same as diabetes” because it’s destigmatizing, but I don’t want to lose the fact that no, these aren’t random things that happened. There is a narrative around why we develop these things and that’s part of how we can get freedom and it’s part of what makes us human, that we have these struggles.
OCD is trivialized in a way nothing else is. And I make jokes about it too – there are cleaning services, one in New York and there might be one in the Bay Area, it’s a common name, OCD Cleaners. Probably even more to the point, when I talk about OCD in comedy, sometimes I’ll ask the audience, “Does anyone here have OCD?” and I’ll often get answers where someone will say, “Oh, yeah, I have OCD.” And I’ll say, “What are your symptoms?” And they’ll say, “Well, I really want my bathroom to be clean.” And you probe more and it’s like no, you just like things being clean. Or people will say “I’m a little bit OCD.” I think it’s such a weird condition and it’s so often trivialized. But when people actually see it, like with the person you mentioned that you’re close to, it can be kind of shocking seeing someone engaging in repetitive behavior, obsessive rumination that’s clearly destroying their lives. They want to stop on some level, but they can’t. Why can’t they stop?
So it’s really a weird thing and I think that makes it hard for society as a whole to appreciate how challenging, how debilitating it can be.
You’ve been performing The Mushroom Cure for ten years now. Has the show changed much over time?
It has. I had these experiences of treating my OCD with psychedelics, and it is an amazing story. And what I mean by that is the actual events were almost literally incredible to me. Like the coincidences, the way certain people came into my life, the experiences I had. When I think of the story itself it’s like wow, it so easily could have gone totally off the rails at so many points, and it didn’t. And that for me raised deep existential and spiritual questions about the nature of the universe.
So that’s what inspired me to do the show, this sense of I want to share this amazing story. And I don’t think I was conscious of it, but I think there was a desire of like “I just don’t want to live in secret any more about my OCD.” So I started sharing these experiences in comedy clubs, cause I had no background in as an actor, no theater background, and what I quickly learned was it wasn’t the right venue because there are laughs in Mushroom Cure, but it’s not like you’re getting a laugh every 20 seconds, the way people expect when they go to a comedy club on a Friday night.
So then I was just “Where can I do this?” and I decided to do it first at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012, but I was doing it all on my own. People would sometimes say, “Well, who’s your director?” And I’d say, “I don’t have a director. Why would I need a director? I’m just telling this true story.” [laughs] Which is about my naivety about theater. I did start working with a director in 2014, Jonathan Libman, and I credit him not just as a director, but also as someone who helped me develop the show, even though I’d done the show hundreds of times by the time I started working with him. He put a really significant stamp on it in terms of things like blocking, lighting, all these basic theatrical elements that I didn’t have. So that was a big step in the evolution, cause for the first few years the show was over two hours long and it was me sitting at a desk talking. That was it. And now it’s about 85 minutes and there is movement, lights, sound cues and all of that. The basic story hasn’t changed, but I think as I’ve developed as a performer, working with Jonathan. I wouldn’t say it’s an OCD thing, but I am a perfectionist and I certainly have worked hard to make the show tighter, more powerful, hopefully more touching, funnier, all of that stuff.
The other show you’re doing at The Marsh, Adam Strauss Is Not Unhappy, sounds quite different in that it’s unscripted. What was the impetus to create that show?
It’s a great question, and I don’t know exactly. I think what some people come away from The Mushroom Cure with, independent of the story, is how honest, how totally raw the show is. I don’t know where that comes from, but that’s a deep desire I’ve always had as a performer, to really share my experience as directly as possible, and this feels like kind of the ultimate expression of that, at least that I can conceive of.
I love standup comedy, but there is a kind of explicit bargain there – which is the audience is gonna give you their attention and you’re gonna give them this very specific, quasi-involuntary pleasurable physical sensation a few times a minute, i.e. laughter. And you know it’s kind of like haiku. It’s a limiting form, but within those limitations there’s an infinite number of things you can do, an infinite number of ways you can make people laugh. But you gotta make them laugh that frequently, and the longer I do standup, I chafe at that limitation for two reasons. One is sort of content-based. I want to be able to get into deeper narratives that may not organically elicit laughs three times a minute. I liken standup sometimes to snorkeling. You know, you can go down a little bit, but you have to pop up for air every 20 seconds. And I want to do more scuba diving. I really want to get into those dark subterranean caverns and you know poke around and look at the weird sea creatures. So that was part of it, just not wanting to be limited by that.
But the other part I can’t fully explain is this deep desire, this need to do this thing, to go up there with no script and try to create something in the moment. And it comes down to honesty. I’m not saying scripts are dishonest, but when I’m up there delivering The Mushroom Cure, I am portraying myself at a different point in my life. Those words don’t necessarily capture my experience in that moment onstage. I’m not tripping on a huge dose of mushrooms, I’m not falling in love with this Ph.D. psychologist. And it feels to me like the way to be the most honest is to dispense with a script and share what’s most alive for me in that moment. Which is sometimes exactly what I’m feeling onstage. But often, like for everyone, what is alive for me is generally recent stuff. It’s this interaction I had with a homeless person three days ago, it’s this episode that happened when I went hiking, it’s this loss I’m feeling about the illness of a family member.
To my knowledge, no one has done anything like this in theater – and there may be a good reason for that! [laughs] You know? There’s a reason why people when they go rock climbing they attach themselves to – I don’t know rock climbing terms, but you know what I mean.
You wouldn’t want all theater to be like this, but what I’m finding to my surprise/relief/gratification is people are into it. There’s something that’s happening, that we’re creating. With The Mushroom Cure, of course, the audience matters, and with standup the audience matters. But I’m gonna say the exact same words. There’s a little improv, but basically I’m going to deliver the exact same show. I’m gonna move at the same time to the same places with the same lighting, whether an audience is laughing a lot, whether it’s a sold-out house. It affects the energy, but it doesn’t affect the content. But with this show, I actually said this in the last performance, I said something like “Yeah, I’m driving the bus, but because I have to be so open to your energy, you’re sort of laying down the paving stones.” And then I said, “So basically what I’m saying is – no refunds.” [laughs] It’s a weird thing and I can’t fully explain it.
If someone said to me, “Adam, you can never do The Mushroom Cure again.” I would say, “All right, I’ll miss it, but I’ve done it a lot, I’ve gotten the story out there, I’m okay with that.” But if someone said, “You can never do Adam Strauss Is Not Unhappy again,” I would be devastated. To me, there is just an excitement around it and a joy – and a terror.
I wondered about the terror aspect. As someone with a history of OCD, isn’t it scary for you to do an unscripted show?
Yeah! And there’s some connection that I can’t draw. OCD is really, at its core, about certainty. Someone who washes their hands constantly, they want to be certain they’re clean. And what I’m doing is embracing the most radical form of uncertainty I can imagine in the form of theater. I think maybe part of it at some level is I’m trying to get more freedom as a performer and as a human by doing the scariest thing I can imagine. And – it never occurred to me, but it’s just popped into my head – it’s a little bit like the idea of treating OCD with psychedelics, you have to let go of control. I get that question sometimes – isn’t that terrifying? Yes, it is, but there’s a part of me that really wants to do that. I can’t sort of consciously will myself to let go of control, but guess what? If I take, you know, 7 grams of dried mushrooms, once I’ve eaten those mushrooms, I’ve now premade the decision, I’ve now basically determined that I’m going to be losing control. I can kind of put myself in a situation where I’m forced to surrender, and in some way I think that’s easier for me, maybe in a way that it wouldn’t be for most people, than making that choice to just surrender moment by moment. And similarly with this show, once the lights come on and I walk onstage, I have an obligation to be up there and to hopefully entertain.
And it really is terrifying! I don’t get that nervous until the day of the show, but every show day I’m just like “Why am I doing this to myself? [laughs] It’s like clockwork, four or five hours before the show. I was doing it in New York and one day a friend told me they’d had a close COVID contact, and I was like “Maybe I have COVID?” I tested myself, and there was a not insignificant part of my brain that was hoping for that second line so I could get off the hook. [laughs] I will say that once I get onstage, there is still fear, absolutely, but the exhilaration sort of counterbalances it.
The Mushroom Cure runs on Friday evenings through May 27th, and Adam Strauss is Not Unhappy runs on Saturdays through May 21st, at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley. For information or to order tickets, visit www.themarsh.org.