Spectrum Theatre’s fourth annual ProjectNU, Blessings in Disguise, tells the stories of real life Northwestern students, while tackling the intersection between identity and mental health. The show follows five students facing different challenges such as single motherhood, plans after graduation and how to do well in their organic chemistry class.

Photo by Eugenia Cardinale / North by Northwestern

The writing process for Blessings in Disguise began during Fall Quarter, when the writing team conducted interviews with Northwestern students. The writing team then had a weekly seminar during Winter Quarter.

Medill junior and head writer Janet Lee described ProjectNU as having components of documentary theater, since the writing team drew a lot of inspiration from interviews.

“A large portion of the script are directly pulled quotes from student experiences, blended into different characters,” Lee said. “So no character stands for one exact individual, but a combination of everyone’s experiences. While it’s impossible to reflect the entire Northwestern experience, these are very much snippets of stories in everyone’s classrooms.”

According to Lee, the student interview process inspired many elements of the show, including the set design.

“We’re working with cube pieces that have been inspired by a Rubik’s Cube that someone brought up in an interview, and the way these cubes shift and create different spaces on campus is something I find really exciting,” Lee said.  

Communication junior and director Allison Zanolli said an interesting aspect of the process was the fact that the script was still being written as rehearsals began.

“The script was not frozen by the time we started rehearsal, so the actors were able to sort of give a little bit of feedback, and say like ‘Oh I feel like this character needs a little bit more resolution here or ‘I feel like this character might benefit from a scene where they can express their anger,’” Zanolli said.  “The actors were able to give a little bit to the writing process in that way.”

But this also proved to be a challenge.

“There were points when we were working on a character and we were kind of like, ‘OK, this is where they are now, but we’re still not sure where they’re going to be by the end of the show,’” Zanolli said

Photo by Eugenia Cardinale / North by Northwestern

The show hopes to bring conversations surrounding mental health to the forefront of art on campus.

“We’re at a time on this campus where mental health is more in the spotlight and more in people’s conversations than it ever has been,” Zanolli said. “I think in the writer’s room ... one big goal was kind of just to make discussing mental health a priority in the art that we’re making on this campus.”

Another priority of the show is tackling representation in student theater.

“Another of the huge goals of the show was to address a vacuum of representation of Asian and Asian American voices in theater on this campus,” she said. “This has been a very eye opening experience for me as a white woman directing this show, that there certainly have been moments when I’m like ‘Wow, I’ve never thought about the things these characters have thought about.’”

This show allowed Zanolli to help tell stories different from her own, which was both a challenge and a learning experience.

“With theater in general, and especially on this campus right now, there’s a lot of questions of who can and should direct what, but if it turns into you can only direct people who look like you, I don’t want to only direct work with casts of white people; that doesn’t reflect the world,” Zanolli said. “I think it’s, for me, been a really cool growing experience of a challenge taking on something that is not necessarily my story but that I can still relate to parts of it and therefore am still able to direct it, even though I’m outside of the voices of these specific characters.”

For Lee, the ultimate goal of the show is to touch as many Northwestern students as possible, and show underrepresented groups on campus.

“I realized not very long ago that this story is about overcomings more so than successes, and that it looks at Northwestern through an empathetic lens, so I’m hoping this piece translates like a big hug that reaches people that we can’t physically go around and gives hugs to and cheer on,” Lee said.

Blessings in Disguise will run in Shanley Pavilion on May 16 and 17 at 8 p.m. and May 18 at 2 and 7 p.m.