As the lights go up in the 1920s-style Capitol Theatre, audience members tentatively raise their hands.
Derek Hess stands at the foot of the stage next to filmmaker Nick Cavalier and Hess’ manager, Marty Geramita. For the last 96 minutes, Hess’ life, his art and his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder have been laid naked on the screen in Cavalier’s documentary Forced Perspective.
Now, the 52-year-old with a blond buzz cut, rich blue eyes and more tattoos than he can count is offering to expose even more by taking questions. Most have little to do with Cavalier’s moviemaking process or Hess’ iconic concert posters and haunting images of fallen angels and battered humans. Instead, usually hushed phrases hang heavy like the theater’s velvet red curtains. Bipolar disorder. Mixed state. Mania.
“Do you take your medication?” a woman prods.
“Yes,” Hess answers.
“Have you taken it for a long time?” she asks hurriedly.
“Yes,” he replies.
“Could you tell us what it is?” she presses.
“I love it when bipolar people meet each other. They all compare meds,” Hess cracks.
The crowd exhales with laughter.
Behind the trio, the screen announces in red letters why they’re here: “Acting Out!,” Hess and Geramita’s three-day festival of comedy, art, film, music and talk to raise awareness about mental illness and addiction.
Below the title, Hess has sketched two drama masks — a wide-smile comedy and a misery-torn tragedy. They appear to fall away from the central figure, a man with heavy eyes, downturned lips, lines of torment and a single tear streaming down his cheeks.
It’s easy to see the tragedy. But keep at it. With the masks and the drama of mental illness removed, the person underneath — vulnerable and exposed — emerges and even rises above. He is no longer a caricature. He is real and raw, even when acting out.
This is deeply personal for Hess, just like the rock ‘n’ roll posters that skyrocketed him to fame in the ’90s and the fine art figures that inspire devotees around the world to get tattoos. He has always been an enigma, choosing to speak through his art rather than opening up about the meaning behind his work or his personal demons.
But Forced Perspective’s local premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival in 2015 drew back the curtains and offered the first public glimpses into his struggles with alcoholism and bipolar disorder. As more audiences connected with the story, Geramita and Hess saw last fall’s Acting Out as an important means of outreach. A second festival is planned for September.
The jovial mood in the theater fades as a blonde shyly raises her hand. She stutters. Her dad hit her after admitting she might suffer from mental health issues.
Hess, wearing a navy zip-up hoodie and jeans, grabs hold of the tension. “That sounds terrible,” he says. “What an ass. Your dad’s reaction was wrong. There’s plenty of help out there.”
The rest of his answer meanders like an early sketch, but eventually it comes into form. “When I was I kid, I was disruptive,” he says. “I was a drugged out maniac: They’re all out to get me.”
The audience chuckles again. Hess is new to this role, but he makes up for it with blunt force and dry wit.
Then Cavalier, who also has bipolar disorder, takes over. A high school art teacher helped him get a scholarship to art school, he says. It eventually led him to make the film.
Toward the end of the program, Hess’ one-time doctor, Joseph Calabrese, stands up at the back of the theater and asks the toughest question of the night. The mask is off.
“Derek, when you were depressed, and it was bad,” says Calabrese, a professor of psychiatry at University Hospitals Case Western Reserve University, “how bad did it feel and how did you manage?”
“You didn’t want to get out of bed,” Hess says slowly. “The only thing that really got me through it was my dog.” He shoves a hand deeper into his hoodie pocket.
“I had to take care of it, but being depressed really hurts,” he says. “I don’t know how to put it into words. That’s why I’m a visual artist.”