Ghosts walk here: across the 160 acres of desolate lawn, among the stately trees and derelict buildings. They walk perhaps as they did in life: muttering to themselves, smiling at jumbled thoughts, or clutching ears, trying to shut out the voices inside their heads.
It's been 11 years since the last patient left Central State Hospital; but on the grounds of the 147-year-old former mental institution the ghosts remain.
Beginning tonight they live again on center stage when the Beckmann Theatre presents the premier of "Asylum" at the Laundry Building of the former hospital. The play runs through May 22.
Written by Indianapolis author, playwright and attorney David Schanker, "Asylum" tells the story of Dr. Jonathan Mangold, chief psychologist at Central State when the hospital closed in 1994, a move prompted by three patient deaths and a national trend to de-institutionalize mental-health care. According to the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute, 44 state psychiatric hospitals closed nationwide from 1990 to 1999.
The play, which is set in Central State's final months, revolves around an art program that Mangold began at the hospital in 1990 for a small group of treatment-resistant schizophrenics. The play also chronicles Mangold's efforts to keep the hospital open as a place of refuge for patients, many of whom he believed were unable to survive outside the institution.
Schanker, who is also a novelist and adjunct professor of writing and film studies at IUPUI, says the idea for turning Mangold's story into a play came after Mangold approached him in 2002 to ask for assistance with a memoir he had written about his Central State years.
Mangold told Schanker about his art studio and the benefits it had brought to patients, even as the hospital was preparing to close. Mangold also described how art had helped him with his own struggles during institutionalization with Vietnam-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Intrigued by Mangold's story, Schanker asked if he could turn it into a play; Mangold agreed.
"The inherent drama of the story really struck me," said Schanker. "Jon (Mangold) had come into a psychiatric institution that was on the verge of collapse and created this art studio. The transformation he was able to effect in his patients was so gratifying that he wanted to use this program to see if he could stop the closing of Central State. He failed, but the attempt was heroic."
Schanker worked on the play for 18 months. In 2004 the Wheeler Arts Center hosted the first public reading of the completed script. Later that year, the Beckmann Theatre held another reading at the Indiana Medical History Museum on the grounds at Central State.
"The story seemed to cry out to be dramatized," said Schanker. "Jon gave me his manuscript; he was looking for a collaborator. The manuscript was his attempt to come to terms with (his Central State) experience, and he believed that it was a story that needed to be told.
"I saw it originally as a screenplay because the story has such a classic structure to it. Then I thought about the fact that it was about the visual arts -- painting -- and I had this flash of inspiration that we should have the actors painting onstage. It took off from there."
The play went through several drafts; Schanker worked closely with Mangold throughout the process.
"Jon gave me a great deal of freedom," said Schanker. "I did a lot of condensing and reordering of the chronology. It was a process of pairing down and creating the four characters of patients he had worked with that would be representative of the whole group."
The play's central message is that it is important to fight for those unable to defend themselves, and that art can have redemptive power, says Schanker.
"Despite Jon's failure to achieve his goal of keeping Central State open, he achieved something more important: He made a difference in the lives of these patients."
The 110-year-old Laundry Building that the Beckmann now calls home was designed by Adolph Scherrer, the architect who finished the design of the Indiana Statehouse when Edwin May, the original architect on the project, died in 1880. Scherrer designed three other buildings on the Central State campus, including the Old Pathology Building that now houses the Indiana Medical History Museum.
Since the closure of Central State, Mangold has remained unwavering in his belief in the power of art to transform the lives of the mentally ill.
"Patients who participated in my program on a regular basis began to develop a real identity of themselves as artists, not necessarily mental patients," said Mangold. "That's the most important benefit, in my opinion: that they really did start to think of themselves as something other than mental patients."
Mangold says seeing his story on stage has been a "surreal" experience.
"I find myself wanting to respond every time I hear my name from the stage; it's odd, honestly," said Mangold. "But it's very flattering that somebody would think that the story was that interesting or good enough to turn into art."
Call Star reporter Nick Crews at (317) 444-6078.