The improv group, Swallow This, in the middle of rehearsals. The group of students act as peer educators. SAMANTHA ROBINSON/THE STATESMAN

Glenn McKay quietly sat on a chair and took a moment to himself.

Four of McKay’s peers and his supervisor waited for him to perform his monologue, but he had just spent the last few minutes laughing about an old improv memory, and his monologue was serious. He had to get into character.

“I just need a little time to get back into it,” McKay explained to his waiting audience. “It was a really hearty laugh, like that good kind where it’s all tingly up here.”

Once he was ready, McKay read from his paper.

“Everyone always says pools are fun, right? The pool takes a little bit off the heat so you can enjoy the sun. Some people think that, until they start drowning,” he said. “Luckily the lifeguards are there to save the ones who aren’t the strongest swimmers. Over my summer as a lifeguard, I’ve probably saved enough kids to fill a Little League team. It just makes you wonder though, who saves the lifeguards?”

The room was silent as McKay spoke. He continued with his monologue, even as he choked up. “I’m not talking about drowning in a piss-filled chlorine dump. I’m referring to drowning on the inside, while you’re standing, walking or doing anything else outside of water.”

McKay is a member of “Swallow This!,” a performance group who uses the real-life stories and experiences of Stony Brook students in order to raise awareness and prevention on issues regarding substance abuse, sexual violence and mental health. The group was formed 25 years ago in a collaboration between Student Health Services and the theater department.

McKay, a third year business major and theater minor, is joined by four other students: Emily Pulver, a senior anthropology major and theater minor; Eli Avila, a junior history major and theater minor; Chris Couluris, a senior history major and media minor; and Noah Talavera-Greenberg, a studio art major and digital art and theater art minor in his fifth year at Stony Brook. They are presided over by Assistant Professor of Practice and Improvisation Lead, Elizabeth Joy Bojsza, and College Prevention Coordinator for Stony Brook University, Alana Marino.

Bojsza said the team is responsible for being peer educators, students who connect, educate and support other students. It’s a mission they take seriously.

“I think the goal is not to create a campus where nobody engages in any risky behavior, but that we are trying to start conversations and raise questions,” she said. “A lot of people follow social norms around the topics that we cover without an awareness of what they’re doing is following something that they’ve gotten or picked up somewhere. They watch other people’s perception of what they think is going on and they don’t question that.”

Bojsza wants “Swallow This!” to leave an impact on students. She said she hopes students do question social norms.

“I hope that after they leave the show, that they’ll think a little bit about that, what goes into their decision making, in regards to behavioral health, all these issues,” she said.

Students anonymously submit stories online which the cast then performs at various events all over campus. The stories range from any number of topics but are usually short. Pulver once read an entry that stated, “I tried drugs, and I had a great time.”

The story McKay chose from the online database only read, “I’m drowning in myself, and I don’t know what to do,” so “Swallow This!” has to be creative in order to write a monologue. 

“We kind of use our artistic license to kind of figure out the core of the story,” Pulver said. “We try our best to represent the message of the story and not put words into people’s mouths.”

With an extensive database of submitted stories, it can be difficult to select one to perform. Couluris said the messages he takes away from the stories help him decide.

“I think it’s the authenticity aspect of it,” he said. “There’s always this kind of hesitation to putting on events like this and skits like this because you don’t want to sound preachy. You don’t want to sound like you’re talking down to an audience, and you don’t want to make it sound like you’re wasting the audience’s time. You want it to be a story that will hit hard and will hit home and will get the message across.”

Pulver said she picks stories that resonate with her. 

“We each kind of picked entries in the monologue that for whatever reason spoke to us and we felt comfortable writing about,” she said. “Trying to find the soul essence, the most important part of that entry and develop that to allow it to be relatable to people.”

Danielle Merolla, the Assistant Director for the Center for Prevention and Outreach (CPO), said “Swallow This!” is an important part of CPO because of what it offers for students.

“I think what we know for sure is that a student or individual is more likely to go to a peer before they ever seek out a mental health professional,” Merolla said. “Peers are more likely to speak to their peers.”

Avila said he saw himself as a friend to the students who watch them perform and submit stories. 

“Your professor’s not going to talk to you about your issues with your domestic partner, your boyfriend, your girlfriend, or anything with alcohol, but your friend might,” he said. “I view myself as a helping hand or a friend to another colleague here on campus, whether I know them personally or I can get to know them through being here and meeting them.”

“Swallow This!” aims to promote discussion. Bojsza said performers are encouraged to engage with their audience. They know they’ve done their job well when the crowd feels connected to the story.

“‘Swallow This!’ has an incredible ability to do that [create a safe space] very quickly through the arts,” Merolla said. “With their vulnerability on stage performing these sometimes really difficult situations that are real-life and actually happen to students, it creates a vulnerability and a safety that allows more open discussion.”

The cast understands that students struggle in their own ways. None of the members have ever met a student who submitted a story, but they still want to represent their experiences.

“Mental health problems happen to everybody, and they happen for no reason sometimes,” Pulver said after McKay performed his monologue. “There isn’t a logical reason to it… Some of us struggle a lot with various things, and that leads to other struggles, and some of us just end up with the short stick — and you’re not alone in that.”

Avila agreed, adding, “Sometimes, great people do great jobs at things, but they still feel horrible about themselves. That’s the worst part because people like them, they could be saving lives, and yet they still feel unworthy… This happens to good people, too.”

The “Swallow This!” cast has been together since the start of the fall semester. All of the members are new, except for McKay — who has been a part of the group since the spring semester. They had to audition for the spot. Bojsza said the process includes a group audition where the club supervisor judges how comfortable students are with the heavy material, as well as a component where the auditionees have to bring a database story to life. The auditions can attract as many as 40 students, but they never cast more than a dozen.

Similar to a regular class, the five members meet every Monday and Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. in a small theater room inside the Staller Center for the Arts. They have assigned readings, quizzes and journal entries they must submit. The members receive credit for THR 308 in the fall and THR 309 in the spring, and are also allowed to apply EXP+ to the course.

“I feel like I trust these guys more than a lot of my friends just because we’ve shared so much,” Pulver said. “We’ve only had one thing that really counts as a performance so far, but getting up on stage with these guys, to me it didn’t matter what happened because we were working together to do something we believed in, and it’s just a great feeling.”   

Couluris also believes that he can’t have those kinds of conversations without trust forming since “Swallow This!” covers important and serious topics.

“We do share a lot of stories, and we’re not sharing them at 12 o’clock at night. We’re sharing them early in the morning. We’re starting our days off basically trauma bonding with each other,” Couluris said. “It works out great though. We’re all in it together once we’re on stage. We’re all in it together when we see each other in the halls… [and] in rehearsal. It’s cool to be connected to a group of people you didn’t even know about a month ago.” 

Bojsza said “Swallow This!” is a platform available to students so they can feel a connection and be encouraged to start a conversation, but some students need more than that. 

“This isn’t drama therapy,” she said. “It isn’t going that far as to, in the moment, we’re going to address people’s specific issues. Things about raising awareness and creating a safe space to have dialogue about these issues, hopefully that empowers students to seek help for themselves if they feel that is appropriate, but also be able to refer their friends and people they interact with to resources.”

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