Musical fosters discussions about mental health and sexual maltreatment
How does it feel to have post-traumatic stress disorder? Like getting hit by a train, according to Anna Westbrook ’16.
“After I was diagnosed, I felt the need to explain what it was like to have an episode,” she said.
“I began toying with this analogy of a train full of people who ran away; once you got hit by this train, you were stuck in this world full of people who were running.”
That was the inspiration behind Isabel & the Runaway Train, a contemporary jazz/folk musical Westbrook spent years writing and perfecting before its full production premiere in Austin, Texas, this past July. The play is designed to help viewers—referred to as “passengers”—discuss the challenging topics of mental health and sexual maltreatment. It tells the story of 16-year-old Isabel, who runs away and finds herself trapped on a magical train. Eventually, she is reunited with her parents, who learn how to help her begin healing from past trauma.
Westbrook, who grew up in New London and studied education at Southern Connecticut State, came to Conn as a non-traditional student in 2013 to study music for the express purpose of writing the musical. A Niblack Scholar through the generosity of the Jack Niblack '98 Scholarship and Internship Fund, Westbrook worked with music and theater faculty and partnered with the College’s Green Dot program to finish the script and score.
“Conn was the perfect place to workshop it,” Westbrook said. “The arts departments are so holistic, and the staff and faculty understand emotional wellness.”
In 2015, when Westbrook was a senior, the student theater group Wig and Candle produced the first staged reading of Isabel for an audience of campus and New London community members.
“After the show, there were people who chose to get help—that’s when I realized this is something that could help people and could make change,” Westbrook said.
After graduation, Westbook moved to Austin, Texas, and began networking with nonprofit groups to bring Isabel to life. That dream became a reality this summer when the musical’s premiere was attended by more than 300 people.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, Westbrook said. And while she expected the show to resonate with women, she was pleasantly surprised by the reaction from older men.
“The father in the show helps his daughter by doing some very specific, manageable things, which men felt gave them something to do,” she said. “Their wives kept calling me and thanking me. One woman said, ‘My husband finally understands the #MeToo movement. He didn’t get it before and he gets it now.’”
Now, Westbrook and the Isabel team have developed a series of workshop-style training seminars to help business teams, organizations and community leaders respond to and discuss mental health, trauma and sexual maltreatment. They plan to take the training program and the musical on the road.
“I prepare people emotionally for the moment when someone says, ‘Something happened to me,’” Westbrook said.
“If we do a better job of comforting survivors, they will be better equipped to get into roles of power. And if we empower survivors, we can make systematic change.”
To learn more or to subscribe to the Isabel & the Runaway Train e-newsletter, visit isabelandtherunawaytrain.com.