A growing body of compelling evidence suggests that there is an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation in the United States with significant negative physical and mental health effects. This epidemic is proven to be at the root of many maladies ranging from suicide, drug addition, public violence, mood disorders, physical illness, and others. According to a recent Cigna Health study, the effect of loneliness on the human body matches that of obesity, alcohol abuse or smoking 15 cigarettes a day, increasing the risk of an early death by nearly 30 percent.

Since 2019 the Alleghany Highlands Arts Council, Historic Masonic Theatre, Alleghany Highlands Public Schools, Alleghany Highlands Community Services Board, League of Older Americans, YMCA of the Alleghany Highlands, and community leaders have worked together to form strategies for addressing this issue.

In 2019, during the first step in the project, the Arts Council and the Masonic Theatre, with the assistance of the Community Services Board, provided a residency with P.U.S.H. Physical Theatre. These masters of physical storytelling, led participants to discover the art of physically translating the universality of thought and emotion through movement.

Now, as a global pandemic has left individuals feeling even more isolated, the Second Step of our project will allow participants to explore using WORDS - both written and sung, to communicate their inner desire to connect with others. A playwriting residency is planned to bring instructors from Hollins University into the same locations used in phase one.  We are fortunate to have enlisted guest artist Rachel Graf Evans, dramaturge, and professor of playwriting at Hollins University to lead the playwriting residency. Sites include both local high schools, senior centers, libraries, and community college campus. The resident playwright will make 3 separate visits to the community, with the space of one month between visits. The first visit will address finding a topic, second visit will provide more technical instruction and the third visit will look at polishing the product.

The songwriting portion of the plan features Lisa Rock who will sit with music students in their classroom and learn that writing a song can be as simple as setting your thought to music.

Lisa has a one-woman titled Close To You: Sounds of the Carpenters that will be presented for the public as well.

To follow-up on the social/emotional element of the work, a peer contact team will be assembled to serve as a resource for those experiencing loneliness issues. Volunteers identified during the workshops will train in Mental Health First Aid through community mental health services. They will learn warning signs and avenues of referral for suicide prevention or planned public violence intervention, among other issues, or simply serve as a human connection for someone in need.

We do not see this as a magic bullet, but we feel the need to carry forward from our initial efforts to address change in today’s world.