Chryssie Whitehead is a powerhouse performer, a deeply compelling artist with a huge resumé. The Broadway and Hollywood triple-threat is on tour with her show,  My Own Little Corner, My Work In Process With Bi-Polar Disorder. The California tour stop is this coming Sunday, March 23, 2024 at the Torrance Cultural Arts Foundation. Rather than focusing on her enviable career, the show explores Ms. Whitehead’s Bipolar 2 diagnosis and the dissection of her life story that followed; where that story has been entwined with that of her mother, and when and where it has diverged. It is not exactly a one-woman show; she performs with her musical director and a small band, but it is not a play. It combines the elements of a cabaret, a confession, a group therapy session, and a career retrospective. A therapist leads a post-show discussion that the audience is invited and encouraged to take part in. While this could sound somewhat off-putting, it is, in reality, heartfelt, touching, funny, and relatable. Somehow, like many deeply personal stories, the extreme specificity makes it universally relatable.

I was able to preview the show and spend some time in discussion with Ms. Whitehead. Her enthusiasm for education, enlightenment, and illuminating pathways out of dark spaces is infectious. The show is part of a broader realignment of her priorities, which currently focus on education rather than performing and choreography.

Chryssie Whitehead - Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Chryssie Whitehead – Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Ms. Whitehead is originally from South Carolina. She started dancing as a tot and has enjoyed a stellar 25-year career on Broadway, in film, and on television. She is an astonishing talent. She began her professional journey at eighteen as a Rockette, was Julia Stiles’ dance double in “Save The Last Dance” and then earned a degree in Musical Theatre from AMDA/NY. She had one of the most anticipated Broadway debuts in history; Kristine in the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line.’ The entire audition process was documented for the film Every Little Step. Her nerves, talent, and emotions are evident in every frame. Additional Broadway credits include “Chicago” and “Company” at Lincoln Center where she starred as Kathy opposite Neil Patrick Harris. Her IMDB page lists over 30 credits including “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Private Practice”, “Castle”, and Steven Spielberg’s  “West Side Story“.

Ms. Whitehead currently focuses on educating the next generation of creatives. She formed The Broadway Arts Community (BAC) with her best friend and fellow triple threat extraordinaire, Alexis Carra Girbés.

BAC is a safe place where artists support each other while also receiving elite, thoughtful training. We focus on PROCESS, JOY, and a HEALTHY MINDSET. Our community is for middle, high school, college, and early professionals who want to dive deeper into the work.

Their offerings are extensive, including workshops, classes, mentorship, and coaching. They are also expanding into the non-profit sector with Broader than Broadway, which seeks to bring residencies into programs that don’t have any art programming to teach essential performance life skills to an extended group of young people.

Chrissie Whitehead - Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Chrissie Whitehead – Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Although the list of creative geniuses who have dealt with bipolar disorders is extensive (Ms. Whitehead projects a slide with a veritable who’s who of famous creatives near the beginning of her show) it still seems astonishing that someone with this level of experience, accomplishment, and objective success would find herself grappling with such a life-altering diagnosis. How did that revelation lead to creating a show that explores such difficult terrain?

It’s really been beautifully organic.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar 2 disorder in 2018. I was very scared of it. I didn’t know what it was. I was scared people would… you know…what would people think? So I went for a few years just trying to figure it out on my own; unraveling the diagnosis, did I agree with it?

A former student was willing to support the show’s development, so she began the process.

The show is the unraveling of a diagnosis of any sort. If someone is curious about their own brain, and their own mental health, what does it take to look after that?

It’s not just my story, it’s also my mom’s. One person handled mental health with care and medicine, and another didn’t. Mom died in 2013 of a slow suicide.

I bear witness and I share my mom’s and my story. I’m also making it accessible to listen to the stories. I’m singing, I’m acting, and I’m dancing. And I’m becoming my mother. I think by the end of it, the whole mission of the show is to spread some hope. To show that there is hope after a [huge, scary] diagnosis.

Chryssie Whitehead - Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Chryssie Whitehead – Photo by Lesley Bohm.

One of the painful journeys that Ms. Whitehead took and subsequently dramatizes in the show is a reassessment of her interactions with friends and colleagues. She pours over journals, looking for clues. They were everywhere; manic energy contrasted with “poopy days” that she shared with only her mother. A determination to keep that part of herself hidden. There was a harsh realization when she reached out to her huge database as a choreographer rather than a performer and got precisely one bite. She had to wonder, is the stigma of the disease keeping her from work, are people scared to hire her? It also led to the realization that she did not need to be a choreographer racing from gig to gig. She could find satisfaction and fulfillment with a focus on her work, her company, and her family. She could help people by sharing her secrets.

That said, the show does return her to the stage, from which she has been absent since 2017. It has been in development for about three years and it is finally a place that she is proud of. She is ready to see it in the world. She invests a lot in the 90 minutes that she is in the theater, making sure that the audience is cared for.

I do the show for an hour, and I dump a lot of information. But I also say, Hey, hang in with me, are we good? Thank you for being here tonight. I talk to everybody in the beginning with the house lights up. I say, if you can hang in with me, I promise you there’s some light. So I kind of brace everyone for it. And then we go! I go on that ride with the audience. And then at the end of it, we hold a discussion with a mental health professional, myself, and one of the executive producers.

Our mission is to normalize conversations around mental health. That’s pretty much it; can we talk about this stuff?

Chryssie Whitehead - Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Chryssie Whitehead – Photo by Lesley Bohm.

Earlier versions left a part of her out. People came and said that they wanted to see her dance. It can be hard when you’ve tucked that part away to be a serious actor to pull it back out. But she does. It took time to find her way in through dance. She did not want to” just grab a hat and a cane,” but to really integrate it into the story. She starts with a line;

I always say to people, have you met me, have you met my best friend? Her name is Dance. Because she has been with me, WITH ME, through all of my life. And when I go to be with her something shifts. Most dancers feel that way, right? Something shifts inside of us. So it’s really nice that I can do it.

This is the moment that many watching the show wait for; the moment when this truly brilliant dancer comes home to herself and her truth.

It’s come full circle, I’m a dancer. First and foremost. Telling stories through dance is what I do best. When I’m with my mom’s grave, I get to accept her being gone and accept, well, just all of it. It’s actually a really beautiful moment where I just take off my shoes. My creative partner and music director, Nick, sings beautifully. I dance while he sings to the song “Dream On”.

The show holds me accountable because I have to be very careful with what I write and what I say. I don’t want to be a hypocrite, I don’t want to be a contradiction. I tell everybody at the beginning of the show that I’m not claiming to be a poster child for this. I’m literally just sharing my story. And I’m still a mess. And I found this and I’m still this and I found that and I’m still this and I just managed things a little better.

Show Poster - Courtesy of the artist.

Show Poster – Courtesy of the artist.

She is really proud of the show, and the inner strength she has found by going on the journey.

I think when I share, it’s just an opening for others to look at themselves. I’m confident in who I am as a performer or a storyteller, because of all the ups and downs and all-arounds that I’ve experienced, you know, but it’s not about that. I just always want to know what YOU want. What’s your takeaway? Because we’re all in this life together for a very short period of time. What are we going to do with it?

Catch the show in Torrance on Sunday March 23.

Check out The Broadway Arts Community.

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Written by Nancy Dobbs Owen for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Chryssie Whitehead – Headshot by Lesley Bohm – Poster artwork courtesy of the artist.