NU alumni create alt-rock musical addressing depression, sexual assault


Source: Maya Kuper

Maya Kuper (Communication ’04) and Paul McComas (Communication ’84) adapted McComas’ novel into an alt-rock musical. The show includes music and lyrics that McComas and Kuper wrote based on the book.

Jane Recker, Assistant A&E Editor


Twenty-seven is an infamous age for rockers in pop culture. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain — they all suffered from depression or addiction; they all died at age 27.

Dayna Clay — the title character in “UNPLUGGED: A Survivor’s Story in Scenes and Songs” — is 27 years old and has severe depression, partially triggered by a sexual assault from her childhood. But, creator Paul McComas (Communication ’84) notes in a news release about the production, “Spoiler alert — Dayna makes it to 28 … and beyond.”

The alt-rock musical, created by McComas and Maya Kuper (Communication ’04), is intended to be a ray of hope for survivors of sexual assault and those with depression, McComas said.

The show tells the story of fictitious rock icon Dayna Clay, who, after a failed suicide attempt, leaves her career and flees to the Badlands to cope with her mental illness and “change from a victim to a survivor of sexual assault,” Kuper said.

The musical is based off the novel “Unplugged” written by McComas in 2002. McComas said he was inspired to write the book after participating in a program called “Rock Against Depression” for five years. The program, which held an annual benefit concert on the anniversary of Cobain’s death, interspersed messages about mental health with music from Nirvana.

“About halfway through the program, I realized that I was spreading awareness for this issue through others’ work, but not work of my own,” McComas said.

In addition to writing the book, McComas also composed some of the songs Dayna performs in the novel. At first, he said he never thought the songs would be performed outside of musical author readings. And then McComas met Kuper.

The two began collaborating in 2009 when McComas brought a “shoebox full of tapes” he needed edited and digitized to Kuper, who worked as a sound editor at the time. Some of these tracks included the songs he had written for “Unplugged.”

As the two began to remaster these tracks, the pair had an idea for a musical. The show would eventually incorporate songs McComas had already written, as well as additional pieces Kuper wrote based off the book.

Although Kuper had extensive songwriting chops — she was one of the head writers for the Waa-Mu Show for three years at NU — she said all the songs she wrote came through Dayna’s character, not her own experiences.

“These songs that are in the show, I don’t think of as Maya Kuper songs; these are Dayna Clay songs,” Kuper said. “She’s this entity that came out of Paul’s brain, and now she dictates to us and it’s our job to transcribe whatever she has to say.”

This connection she felt with the character led Kuper to do something she never expected: taking on the lead role in the musical.

Although Kuper was involved in the theater community at NU, she remained out of the spotlight, engaging in technical positions instead.

“I never thought I would be a singer onstage,” she said.

Kuper said Dayna requires a lot of emotional depth to play, due to the character’s battle with depression. A lot of Dayna’s personal struggles reflect those of McComas, who said he has dealt with clinical depression for most of his life.

McComas said the primary goal of this project is to spread awareness about sexual assault and depression. The production as a whole shows its dedication to these causes by keeping its shows not-for-profit, with the majority of the proceeds going to the Kennedy Forum, an organization that aims to destigmatize mental illness, and Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which spreads awareness about sexual violence.

RAINN press secretary Sara McGovern said she is very impressed with McComas and Kuper’s work, especially with how the material has spread awareness of the issues they advocate.

“Anything that we can do to raise awareness and promote the issue about sexual violence is helpful,” McGovern said. “When it comes from an entertainment perspective, it can be more effective at reaching people who might not be comfortable having a full-on conversation about it.”

McComas added that the next big step for spreading awareness is turning “UNPLUGGED” into a feature-length film. McComas, who received his master’s in film at Northwestern, said he’s been in talks with people in Hollywood who have expressed interest in the project.

Their project comes amid the events surrounding sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Kuper, who has worked in rape prevention activism since 2013, said she is saddened that sexual assault remains an ongoing issue. However, movements that spark dialogue, like the #MeToo campaign, give her hope.

“Every high profile case that comes to light, every survivor that steps forward, every one of those is a step forward,” she said. “The more we have the conversation and the more we focus on it and realize it’s an issue, the better.”

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Twitter: @jreck96