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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Finding his creative niche

    Matt Olsen and others rehearse their one-act plays in October at the Thames Club in New London before a performance at the Oasis Room of the Garde Arts Center. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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    This corrected version fixes the sponsor organizations of the exploratory playwrighting program and the titles of two employees at SEC-TV.

    By Lee Howard

    Day Staff Writer

    Matt Olsen has things to say about the way people with mental health issues are portrayed today. The 44-year-old playwright and screenwriter was diagnosed more than two decades ago with paranoid schizophrenia, a condition that manifests in him as mean voices telling him to do bad things.

    "But I don't listen to them because I know they're not real," he said Thursday in a phone interview.

    The New London resident and New London High School graduate, who lives on his own supported by disability checks because anxiety leaves him unable to work, has nevertheless forged a name for himself locally as a writer of note. And now his first film project titled "Clubhouse" will be aired for two weeks on SEC-TV starting Monday, telling the brief story of A.J., who is going through a bad mental health episode after the death of his father.

    "It makes me feel really good about things, definitely," Olsen said about his upcoming film debut. "I think this has really changed my life. I want to see where it goes."

    The film, which will play at 9 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and Sunday at noon over a two-week period through Jan. 30, was supported by the local public access station SEC-TV, found on channel 12 on the Groton side of the Thames River and on channel 25 on the New London side. It is directed by David Hamilton, a Groton Parks and Recreation Department employee, and produced by New London filmmaker and writer Nicholas Checker using SEC-TV cameras and editing equipment.

    Olsen has been on a bit of a roll. In November, he debuted a new one-act, one-character play, "Crisis," at the Garde Arts Center as part of an exploratory playwrighting class led by Checker in coordination with the Garde Arts Center and Flock Makerspace. Afterward, the Hollywood screenwriter Peter Filardi, a Mystic native who now lives on the shoreline and attended the event at the invitation of Checker, came up to Olsen and, as he described it, told him "Your play was amazing — keep writing."

    And that's what Olsen intends to do, trying to highlight some of the issues that people with mental health challenges go through and how uneducated and uninformed the public and even workers in the field are about how to react to people with psychoses.

    In "Crisis," for instance, a delusional patient in the emergency room crisis ward thinks he's a movie star in the film "Dances With Wolves," and refuses to go upstairs to get some help. In the end, he decides he does need help and that some of his delusions might really be all in his head.

    "Clubhouse" is a two-character screenplay in which a guy mourning the death of his father is holding his dad's hat, which a mental health worker snatches away, leading to a struggle. When the worker eventually gives back the hat, he gets a big bear hug. The moral? "Read the rules; don't touch a client," Olsen said.

    Both of Olsen's pieces are dramatic as well as educational, which he said is the intent of what he is trying to accomplish. Much of his writing, he said, is based on life experiences, and he takes seriously the adage "write what you know."

    "I like telling stories; I'm a creative person," he said. "I'm not going to let a disability get in front of what I do."

    Hamilton, director of "Clubhouse," said the shoot was accomplished in less than two hours with actors Paul Humphreys and Peter Yackovetsky and assistant director Jennifer Bustamante. It took several weeks to edit the 8-minute film, which includes a voiceover, music and an interview with Olsen to provide some context to the action.

    "He's just a really nice guy, and I figured this would be easy and fun to do," Hamilton said about why he decided to take on directing and film editing duties for Olsen's screenplay. "I'm just happy that he's happy."

    Hamilton added that the folks at SEC-TV, principally founder and general manager Frank Facchini and production manager Frank Fulchiero, have been very easy to work with.

    "They're like angels over there," he said. "They'd do anything to make a project come to life."

    "They love it when you come up with a creative idea for the studio," Checker agreed.

    After its initial run, the movie will be made available on YouTube, and Olsen hopes to be able to show it after the COVID situation eases to his friends at Sound Community Service, which features a "clubhouse" area where people with mental health challenges can hang out and socialize.

    Olsen realized he loved storytelling while still in high school, where he acted and worked behind the scenes as part of the drama club. More than a decade ago, he made a brief appearance in Checker's film "Radio Rage," directed by S.J. Williams, and he was hooked.

    He now meets with Checker every other week at the Washington Street Coffee House to look over his scripts. Olsen tries to get at least one paragraph completed every day. He often encourages friends with mental illness to try their hand at something creative, he said.

    "They think their illness is running their lives," he said. "It is a hard illness, but there are ways to cope."

    Olsen said he hopes to become a role model for others with paranoid schizophrenia and other mental illnesses who want to try their hand at playwrighting and screenwriting. People often get the wrong perception of mental illness from the media, he said.

    "They think we're animals ... Ridiculous," he said. "The stigma is so bad. It hurts."

    Checker has been impressed by Olsen's drive to succeed.

    "He worked very well with a group," Checker said. "He takes a long time, but when he reflects on something .... when he explains what's on his mind ... it makes perfect sense."

    When it comes to disabilities, Checker added, many focus on a person's limitations, but with Olsen it becomes clear that he is saying loud and clear, "My capabilities exceed my limitations."


    Playwright Matt Olsen, left, talks with Nick Checker, program director and instructor, after rehearsing at the Thames Club in New London his one-act, one-person play for an Exploratory Playwriting class in coordination with Flock Makerspace and the Garde Arts Center. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
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