New Trier Student Pens Musical With Insights on Teen Mental Health
James McColl is a 17-year-old rising senior at New Trier High School in Winnetka. A longtime theater participant, James wrote, directed, and acted in his original play, “The Avalanche,” in early June. “The Avalanche” incorporates themes of teen mental health that are on so many of our minds. James donated the proceeds of his musical to The Josselyn Center. We were so impressed with his work that we wanted you to learn more about this rising young talent. We spoke with James about his experiences creating “The Avalanche” and what parents and students can do moving forward.
How did you first get involved in theater? What brought you to “The Avalanche”?
I’ve been doing theater since I was young through Children’s Theater of Winnetka, Wilmette Park District Children’s Theater, and Skyline. I got more into writing in high school. I started forming ideas of what I wanted to write about, and I wanted to focus on issues that are really present in our world. Mental health is definitely one.
Luke’s [the main character’s] anxiety is central to the show. I wanted to focus on that journey—for him to seem like this strong, quirky person that you would never suspect is struggling. Plus, the external factors that were affecting him that people didn’t see, like bullying, peer pressure, substance use. These things are so present for teens today. It’s not like there’s this big bully who throws you against a locker. It’s not that clear. Similarly, with drinking at parties, the peer pressure is not so obvious. It’s all an undercurrent.
Does social media add to this set of pressures?
I think social media lends itself well to that increased subtleness. For example, a post with “teasing”—hey, don’t take it so seriously. It’s the same thing with posts about parties, etc.
It seems like your generation has much less stigma around discussing mental health than prior generations. Is that true?
It’s definitely better than it was. For example, when I was working on the play, I reached out on social media and asked if anyone would be interested in being interviewed about mental health. Five people contacted me. Of course, it’s still a huge struggle. People might have reached out for help at some point, but still think “I can handle this myself.” People will openly admit stress, but might not admit what’s really going on.
The entire production was done by students. What was the experience like for the cast and crew to do “The Avalanche”?
We were all definitely scared going in. There were no adults involved and this wasn’t through school or a program. It was a big commitment, about 12 hours a week in the beginning, more like 20-30 later on. We weren’t able to get into the space where the performance would be held until a week and a half before the show. But everyone involved was so professional and handled it well.
You captured the mom’s [the mother of Luke’s] feelings so well for someone who isn’t a parent. How did you do that?
I did a lot of research. The blessing of theater is that you walk in someone else’s shoes. I did a lot of research about single moms. It’s important to get into someone’s perspective. No one should be seen as the bad guy. Understanding a character’s motivations helps us see that no one is necessarily wrong. They have different motivations.
What can parents do? What would you say to parents reading this?
It’s such a tough thing, because it’s impossible for parents to fully understand what we go through. But mainly, understand that these issues that your kids are experiencing are not easy, and not always clear. Your kids are trying the best they can in circumstances. Be that rock—they don’t need another pressure. Keep your learning curve up with all the new things they experience. But don’t act like you completely understand everything that’s going on. That’s not possible.
What can schools do?
There’s a tendency among teens to see anything the schools do as wrong. A school can act like that parental figure I just described and try to gain understanding. A lot of teachers have that open door policy, and that’s a cool thing to see. As many levels of support as possible.
Josselyn’s Junior Board is hoping to create a “Zen Den” in a high school; a room where students can de-stress and break away from the pressures of school, akin to a school nurse’s office for mental wellness. What do you think of that?
The best people to know and have ideas are the students, like your Junior Board. I like it. No questions asked, no stigma around going there. Not playing it up as a big deal.
What’s next for you?
Keep writing. This summer, I’m participating in a play writing intensive at Northwestern. I’ll also keep talking about the key messages from “The Avalanche.”