At Mixed Blood Theatre, playing to the smartest person in the house starts with research about societal barriers

Katy McEwan, Aditi Kapil and Warren Bowles in "Distracted," opening Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre.
Courtesy of Mixed Blood Theatre
Katy McEwan, Aditi Kapil and Warren Bowles in “Distracted,” opening Friday at Mixed Blood Theatre.

It’s no secret that what you see on stage comes after plenty of hard work by all of those involved.

At Mixed Blood Theatre, the first step starts with research. That’s especially important when dealing with a show like “Distracted,” Lisa Loomer’s controversial look at Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“Mixed Blood is about addressing artificial barriers to people succeeding in American society,” says Jack Reuler, the theater’s artistic director and the director for “Distracted.”

While Mixed Blood’s mission has long included issues of race, culture, language, nationality, gender and sexual orientation, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the company began to address disability as “one of those artificial barriers.”

Since then, Mixed Blood has produced a show each year examining those issues. That means plenty of investigation into the often deep, complex and controversial worlds presented.

“It is our intent to play to the smartest person in the house, therefore, it is our obligation to be fully informed about the content of the script,” Reuler says. “Some directors do the research themselves. Some utilize dramaturges for such research. I prefer experts in the field, often with contrasting points of view to illustrate the complexity of the play’s topic.”

To help facilitate this, Reuler brought in a host of experts, including a psychiatrist, neurological psychologist, the national president-elect of CHADD (Children and Adults with ADD), and a married couple who are parents of three boys diagnosed with ADHD.

That firsthand experience, coupled with research undertaken by everyone in the cast and crew, leads to “debates about the relevance and accuracy of the text,” Reuler says. “It also lets us appreciate how smart the playwright is on the topic, and how she has embodied issues in three-dimensional characters in a tale with a common-yet-special arc.”

Through the three-hour discussion on that first afternoon — all before the first “table” reading of the play — the cast and crew discussed the issues that swirl within “Distracted” with these experts. Near the end, they turned to Dr. Elizabeth Reeve, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with HealthPartners.

Reeve, a regular volunteer for mental health education events for schools and nonprofits, also teaches residents and medical students at HealthPartners. That perspective proved valuable for the cast members, who were trying to work through all of the various medications mentioned in the script.

Reeve was impressed with the depth of the questions from the Mixed Blood folks. “I found the questions very insightful and thoughtful. They were clearly committed to obtaining both general information about ADHD as well as specific information that could help them with their characters role.” Reeve says.

The talk also gave Reeve a chance to not only talk about key medications and how they work to address the conditions, but also to discuss a number of misconceptions about the condition.

“One common misperception is that ADHD affects kids only at school. Kids with ADHD are affected in all aspects of their life,” Reeves says. “They have higher drop-out rates from school but also have more trouble maintaining jobs, higher rates of motor vehicle accidents, more risk for substance abuse, greater degrees of social conflict with peers, increased medical care due to accidents, et cetera. It is also commonly believed that kids will ‘grow out of it’ but we now know that 50 to 60 percent of kids with ADHD will go on to have symptoms throughout their adult life.”

Of course, the talk was only an early step in the process. The cast had a full slate of rehearsals through the month, leading up to this Friday’s opening night. And the design crew had a number of challenges ahead.

“Part of the playwright’s somewhat controversial premise is that we live in a world with such sensory overload that ADHD symptoms are virtually part of everyone’s daily life,” Reuler says. “The inclusion of a constant bombardment of sound and video in a 90-minute fast-paced, seamless evening of entertainment will take time and precision to weave into the show.”

What: “Distracted”
Who: Mixed Blood Theatre
Where: 1501 S. Fourth St., Minneapolis
When: Friday, Sept. 26-Oct. 19
Tickets: $13-$30
Phone: 612-338-6131
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