Holiday Play Puts Mental Health On Center Stage
The set for the play Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story is decked out in 1980s nostalgia. There’s the boxy TV with wire antenna, maroon and beige rolly chairs, large desk calculators and boxy, colorful sweaters. If that isn’t enough to take audience members down memory lane, the soundtrack includes ’80s classics like George Michael’s “Last Christmas” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”
Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story is written and directed by 24-year-old Eli Newell. Chicago’s Raven Theatre commissioned Newell last year to write a holiday play, and one mental health professional says revisiting the Yule Connection is especially relevant now. Newell’s instructions were pretty open: It had to be staged in November or December, and he was promised a full production.
But that was about it.
So Newell started his research with standard Google searches like “holidays” and “Chicago.”
“I’ve always been a real history nerd and I always start with history, especially if there’s a local connection,” Newell said. He knew he wanted to make the story specific to the city, suburban Evanston and particularly the city’s North Side since Raven Theatre is located in the Edgewater neighborhood.
“I started digging through archives of the Tribune,” Newell explained. That’s where he learned about the Yule Connection, a 24-hour hotline staffed by volunteers for two weeks during the holidays. It was organized by the Church Federation of Chicago and local TV and radio stations.
Chicago talk show host Phil Donahue even starred in a 1987 commercial and explained the idea of the hotline. Donahue, wearing a blue v-neck sweater and khakis, says: “Holidays are a time of joy. But for many people, this season can be the loneliest time of the year. Well, there are people who care, who will listen.”
Donahue then gives out the phone number.
Once playwright Newell read a couple articles (and watched that Donahue commercial), he knew he wanted the plot of his holiday play to be about the Yule Connection and the issues that might have made callers reach out.
“What happens if you start a holiday play by acknowledging the difficulty and the burden of the holidays?” Newell said.
Newell’s play re-imagines a call center from 1983. In addition to the furniture, he captures the time period with dialogue about Reagan-era politics and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.
Another symbol of the time is how the characters talk about mental health in veiled terms.
“I don’t think these characters would go there,” Newell explained. “It’s easy for us to say now that we have all this access to … mental health resources, but I think at the time that was a real taboo.”
In the play, the characters have a script their meant to follow for each caller; one that allows them to give general advice without getting in too deep.
They give general messages of support like, “Keep your head up.”
Newell’s play focuses on four main characters — Larry, Betty, Annie and Bruce — who are answering the phones at a Yule Connection call center.
“One thing that was really important to me was that every character in the play was desperately craving connection,” Newell said. “That’s where I started. What are they each lacking and what can they provide for one another?”
Cold Town / Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story taps into the histories of each character and how their experiences have shaped them into who they are at the call center in 1983. In the end, they don’t want to just offer consolation to callers, but they also want to be consoled.
‘We Don’t Heal in Isolation’
Alexa James hasn’t seen the play, but in many ways, she lives it every day.
James is executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, or NAMI. NAMI runs a helpline throughout the year, but James said the holidays can be especially difficult.
“We get a lot of calls from people who feel isolated this time of year,” she said. “I would say that we have definitely seen an increase in folks who are contemplating suicide since before Thanksgiving.”
James explained that the holidays can stir up a range of issues and make some people forget about taking care of their own mental health around the “wild and busy” holidays.
“If we walk in already full, tired, broke, dissatisfied on December 25 to our family, we do not have the ability to have grace. We do not have the patience to manage something that could be traumatic or challenging,” James said.
One practice NAMI emphasizes is empathy.
“Teaching the ability to step back and make this not about you and to anticipate that somebody’s having their worst day of their life, that somebody’s coming to you with trauma creates more space for safety for other people to share their feelings,” she advised.
James said the other piece of helping those who are experiencing despair, depression or feeling lost this time of year is a clearer understanding of effective treatment. Although she’s a proponent of therapy, James explained it requires more than that.
“We heal in our communities and when our neighbors shut their door, when we don’t engage with one another, when we’re isolated, no matter if you’re seeing a therapist or not, that doesn’t help,” James said.
As a mental health professional who talks to and sees people every day who are struggling with managing their mental health, James said the guidance she offers year-round is even more pertinent right now.
“Know that this is a moment, and you can overcome this moment,” James advised. “But utilize your community. Trust that if you share with them that things are hard, that you would maybe be surprised by the love and support that you get.”
James added that if someone doesn’t have that community available, NAMI can provide that or connect an individual with resources that will help ease some of those feelings of isolation.
What Happened to the Yule Connection?
The Church Federation of Greater Chicago organized the Yule Connection in 1977. That’s according to testimony by Rev. William E. Maloney in 1978 to in front of Congress’ Subcommittee on Communications. In that testimony, Maloney defined the Church Federation as comprised of “21 Protestant and Eastern Orthodox religious groups in the metropolitan area.”
The subcommittee was hearing testimony in response to The Communication Act of 1978. But, why is Maloney testifying in front of Congress about broadcast legislation? According to the transcript, Maloney said the Church Federation of Greater Chicago worked closely with local TV and radio stations to produce programming that served the public interest. Maloney argued that any deregulation could damage this relationship and affect that programming.
Maloney went on to cite the relationship between faith groups like his and local broadcasters by acknowledging the creation of the Yule Connection.
“Recognizing the special problems of the Christmas season for people who are lonely,” Maloney said the Church Federation of Greater Chicago teamed up with local broadcasters to start the 24-hour hotline. Maloney said “it was a project that belonged to everybody; it would have been insignificant without overwhelming support of community-minded broadcasters.”
Local TV and radio stations provided airtime to promote the line and produce on-air spots, like that commercial from Donahue. According to public television station WTTW’s Julia Maish, “volunteers would use our membership drive phone bank to answer calls from depressed people during the holidays.”
According to Maloney from the Church Federation of Greater Chicago, the Yule Connection generated 1,500 calls during the 1977 holiday when it first launched. Maloney said the hotline’s success was dependent on the public service responsibilities of broadcasters.
The Church Federation of Greater Chicago ran the Yule Connection until at least 1989. Another social service agency took it over after and it was active for a few more years. The Yule Connection number is now disconnected.
Cold Town/Hotline: A Chicago Holiday Story runs through Dec. 22 at the Raven Theatre, located at 6157 N. Clark St. in Chicago.
Below are 24/7/365 crisis or info and referral lines that are available during the holidays, from NAMI:
NSPL (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
· 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)
Crisis Text Line
· Text CONNECT to 741741
SAMHSA’s National Helpline
· 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
National Domestic Violence Hotline at
· City of Chicago Chicago DV Hotline - 1-877-863-6338
The Trevor Project
· Text START to 678678
o LGBTQIA+ Identified people only
Veterans Crisis Line
· Text: 898255
National Runaway Safeline
Boys Town National Hotline
o A crisis, resource and referral number for kids and parents
National Sexual Assault Hotline
Carrie Shepherd is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @cshepherd.