“I enjoy a layered approach, an approach that engages my own expertise,” Portland actor and singer Susannah Mars said as we chatted over coffee. “And then I really enjoy opening up the seams a little bit.”
The nuances of this approach surfaced as we discussed her current project: a film with the working title Mourning Has Broken, currently in post-production. The film promises to be a collage of firsthand experiences and artistic offerings that probe grief as a central concept. Mars spoke with me about integrating audio descriptions for blind and low-vision audiences into the film, as well as many other facets that knit together this collaborative endeavor.
Grief became an ever-present influence in Mars’ life after the death of her father, Kenneth Mars, in 2011. Like her, he worked as an actor, performing in popular media including roles in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Mars’ deep connection to her father spanned blood, career, and artistry, and his passing shook up her world.
“Death is that thing where, when you continue to remain in contact with it, it almost revitalizes your life,” she reflected. “Because everything is about: ‘Okay, they’re gone. But I’m here.’ It’s such a fascinating experience, and heartbreaking at the same time.”
This paradigm shift prompted Mars to make an investment in her own grieving process, bringing her into community with others. “Grief is immensely connective. It seems counterintuitive,” she said, recollecting her time in a grief group. “I was amazed at the bridge it made between people with completely disparate backgrounds.”
She continued to cultivate these affinity-driven connections, which eventually seeded her big vision for Mourning Has Broken. The project emerged organically through her relationships with other grievers in her artistic community, collaborators including composer Dick Titterington, visual artist Meadow, and animator Jenny Kincade, each of whom had experienced the loss of someone close to them:
Titterington lost his son to suicide. Thirteen-year-old Meadow—a mentee of Mars through the organization Family of Friends—lost their father. Kincade lost her husband.
“Death is that thing that reminds you to live,” mused Mars. “And my art-making is a way that I love to live. I love relationships, and I love that family that you make when you make art.”
Mourning Has Broken emulates this sentiment with its egalitarian and intergenerational direction. The film will take shape as a short animated documentary, with direction and creative production by Oregon Media Lab’s Jackie Weissman and Jen Tate. It will layer contributions from artistic collaborators that give it a unique dimension: Titterington’s song, “I Never Could Know”—which is dedicated to his late son—will act as the “heart and soul” of the film. Meadow’s artworks will anchor the film visually, and Kincade will spirit this element with animation. Mars will offer vocalization inspired by her late parents (her mother, Barbara Diamant, passed in 2021). Interviews with all four of these collaborators will be thread throughout.
The web of artistic collaborators does not stop here: Rick Hammond and Cheryl Green are set to create integrated audio description that will weave tightly with the other elements of the film. Audio description makes visual media accessible for blind and low vision audiences via detailed narration. While it is typically offered as an add-on option (e.g. for media on Netflix), Mourning Has Broken will feature it as a core artistic element—an interstitial layer in the collage.
“Audio description has been a part of the project since the beginning,” emphasized Mars, who became an audio describer in-training herself after losing other acting work during the pandemic. Her interest in audio description has flourished as of late; however, her involvement in other forms of accessibility predates pandemic times. She spoke of her past work in a group home and as a guide for blind skiers, emphasizing that her relationships with disabled individuals continue to challenge her way of thinking and creating.
Mars spoke in depth about collaborating with Green and Hammond, whose pivotal insights have shaped the structure of Mourning Has Broken. “They just continued to remind me: ‘You need more breath in this piece so that audio description can fit,” she recalled. “It is really surrendering my whole way of digesting information.”
Ultimately, Mars believes it is imperative that all audience members are able to “place themselves in the work.” Audio description acts as an important artistic parameter for opening the film up in this way.
And the film’s release grows imminent. While it has received support from the Regional Arts and Cultural Council, Mars is still fundraising through GoFundMe to finish the final leg of production. In her view, this project “has a much wider time swath” compared to others she has participated in, and she intends that the film will reach completion in the Spring of 2023, provided that all fundraising goals are met.
Upon release, the collaborators plan to host free live screenings at multiple locations, such as Portland Center Stage and Portland Playhouse. These events will be led by grief professionals and involve both artist discussion and facilitated audience participation. “I am not calling them talkbacks,” Mars noted of this last component. “I would say: feel-backs.” Mars also hopes to share the film on at least one online platform (to be determined) once screening events have concluded.
When I asked about her dreams for Mourning Has Broken, Mars referred to its simple tagline: “Life can lead to grief. Grief can lead to art. What will you make?” Grief has been a creative conduit toward community and creation, and she hopes that this work will spur others toward connection, community care, and artmaking as well.
After all, grief is unavoidable—be it the result of death, illness, heartbreak, or other destabilizing life changes. Sometimes, it can even light up life in technicolor and provide fodder for art that might not exist otherwise. Mars is acutely aware of this phenomenon, and her investment in this project reflects her hopes for “smashing the hierarchy of who gets to be an artist.”
Art is life-giving, said Mars, “and you don’t have to leave it to the professionals, right?”