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World Builders: Dramaturgical Notes

Posted on November 16, 2015 in Season 12

“Why do the doctors get to choose which happiness I keep? Why do they get to decide which sort of happiness I feel?” — Max

“I have never struggled with not caring, only with other people thinking that I should.” – Anonymous post from Actually Schizoid

We began rehearsals for World Builders armed with diagnoses and traits from the DSM-5, prepared to understand and portray personality disorders to a psychiatric T. As we delved into Johnna Adams’ vibrant, heart-wrenchingly honest story, however, we discovered that clinical definitions of Max and Whitney’s Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) only paint a surface-level picture of these characters’ complex inner lives.

From a clinical perspective, SPD is one of 10 personality disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. SPD is a Cluster A disorder (“odd/eccentric”), characterized by up to nine different traits, but generally “by a pervasive pattern of social detachment and a restricted range of emotional expression.” Although the extent to which individuals with SPD interact with the outside world varies case-to-case, many prefer living within their controlled, often fantastical and wildly imaginative, worlds; this trait seems unhealthy, abnormal, and intimidating to many outsiders —despite studies showing that “normal” individuals spend more than 30 percent of their own waking hours daydreaming themselves.

Although Max and Whitney have been hospitalized for and clinically diagnosed with SPD, their individual journeys constantly teeter from official DSM definitions. As we excavated the text more closely, we realized that a clinical perspective could not offer the nuanced tools we needed to truly understand this story.

We decided instead to investigate the human, day-to-day world of SPD. We combed through 24 pages of posts on Actually Schizoid, a tumblr blog dedicated to real-life stories of SPD and one of the Internet’s most comprehensive glimpses into this world, and discovered that this personality type is as malleable and complex as any other psychiatric diagnosis. The farther we dove into the blog, the more we realized that many individuals have no desire to treat their SPD; in fact, many are perfectly at-ease with their inner worlds and even consider their clinically abnormal personality to be an asset rather than a mental illness.

What makes Adams’ play so honest is not its adherence to modern psychiatry’s definition of SPD; rather, it is the nuance of her characters—both of whom adhere to and contradict standard notions definitions of SPD throughout the play—and the questions that their journey within the world of mental health reveal. The idea of a “disordered” personality in and of itself raises enormous questions: What constitutes a personality? Who defines “normal” and “abnormal,” and who has the right to deem whether a “disordered” personality needs treatment?

This is not to say that World Builders is rallying against modern psychiatry or demanding that psychiatric patients have full control over their treatment. Rather, Adams asks us to see ourselves in Max and Whitney as they grapple with their own definitions of normalcy and happiness, challenging our own preconceived notions about mental illness and offering a rare glimpse into these characters’ colorful and often-misunderstood worlds. 

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