A rehearsal for "Apologies." Courtesy of Michael Hemphill

Annie Slemp never met Louis Tudor, who committed suicide in 2020, but the 18-year-old high school senior has him to thank for helping her struggle with depression.

This weekend – as part of Youth Mental Health Awareness Month – Annie hopes other teens will benefit from Tudor’s tragedy when the nonprofit bearing his name, Tudor House, partners with Virginia Children’s Theatre to present “APOLOGIES: a play about teenange suicide.”

Performances are tonight at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. at North Cross School’s Fishburn Auditorium in Roanoke. Tudor House will lead a mental health talkback after each show. Tickets are available by donation at the door.

“The thing that differentiates between a play and a seminar or lecture is that you have people acting and giving their heart into a performance rather than a lecture that’s kind of a boring talk that most people aren’t interested in,” Slemp said. 

Slemp learned this through the first Tudor House-Virginia Children’s Theatre collaboration in early 2021. Then a junior at North Cross, Slemp felt trapped in her Covid-induced isolation: “Depression is something I’ve always struggled with, but especially in Covid, in quarantine. I felt very closed off from the world. It was dark.”

From left: Kathleen Thorell, Tudor House executive director; Annie Slemp; and Jeanne Bollendorf, VCT director of development. Courtesy of Michael Hemphill.

Then she attended “Out of the Shadows: A Youth Suicide Prevention Play,” where, she explained, “It gave everybody at our school comfort that they weren’t alone in these times, and it was really cool watching kids your own age acting in something like this and they weren’t afraid to talk about this, especially something that can be such a triggering subject.”

Known more for upbeat productions featuring younger actors like “Cinderella” and “The Addams Family,” Virginia Children’s Theatre has a distinguished history in staging dramas through its VCT4TEENS program that center on adolescent issues: cyberbullying, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, eating disorders, drug addiction and so on.

Teenage depression was chosen as the theme in 2021 in part due to the pandemic’s mental health effects on juveniles. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between 10 and 24 years of age, claiming 4,600 lives annually.

“Being a teen brings a plethora of challenges, let alone in a pandemic,” wrote Brett Roden, VCT’s producing artistic director. “Our young people need our love, support, help and guidance. VCT4TEENS is more than theatre, more than art, but a program that changes the lives of the teens and families in our community.”

VCT also found a new ally in the fight thanks to a partnership with Tudor House, which was founded in the tragic aftermath of one of the pandemic’s victims.

A beloved Roanoke businessman and father of four, Louis Tudor was a legend in the Roanoke swimming community as athlete and coach until pandemic lockdowns interrupted his daily routine. 

“When COVID happened, the lockdown threw him for a loop,” said his wife, Jessica. “He was very regimented and the swimming community was his family, we called it his ‘swamily.’” 

He began having trouble sleeping and became paranoid, she said. Other mental health issues emerged that ultimately led to July 1, 2020, when he jumped off the top of a downtown Roanoke parking garage.

Christy Cundiff, left, and Jessica Tudor standing before a painting of Louis Tudor. Courtesy of Michael Hemphill

Family friend Christy Cundiff, a licensed professional therapist, was among the first at Jessica’s side that day. In the days that followed, and as their pain resolved into purpose, they and other friends began working to find meaning in Tudor’s death.

“How can we help heal ourselves and heal the community?” Cundiff asked. Out of their sorrow, they started Tudor House, which provides suicide prevention, education and support services to the Roanoke Valley. 

“Louis saw the best in people even when they didn’t see the best in themselves,” said Cundiff, who volunteered to be the board president, “so I think he would be proud of what we’re doing and the legacy we’re leaving behind.”

That legacy has manifested itself in many ways in the organization’s 18 months of existence. Throughout the Roanoke Valley, Tudor House shares a variety of local and national resources to help people with mental health issues, and in January donated $25,000 to the Bradley Free Clinic to provide better access to mental health care. 

The partnership with Virginia Children’s Theatre emerged in 2021 when VCT4TEENS decided to tackle teenage suicide and reached out to Tudor House. Unbeknownst to them, Tudor House’s executive director was Kathleen Thorell, whose children had been part of VCT for 10 years. 

“Our worlds collided and we started this wonderful collaboration where I was so thankful to have an organization that was willing to talk about suicide and educate others in such a creative way,” said Thorell.

Written by Brian Kral, APOLOGIES revolves around a teenage girl’s unexplained suicide. The audience travels back through the events of the victim’s life that led to her tragic decision.

“After two years of the global pandemic, our country is seeing a major mental health crisis amongst our young people, making this play more important now than ever,” says Heather Lanza, a New York-based director hired by VCT to direct APOLOGIES. “APOLOGIES asks us all to think about the ways we can be there for one another during difficult times, and asks us to consider how we can better advocate for the mental health of our friends and children.”

After each performance this weekend, a panel of mental health professionals will appear on stage to talk to and answer questions from the audience. 

“I’m still surprised by people I meet who don’t realize that there is a national crisis suicide line or local resources, so anytime we can spread that message it’s hopeful,” said Thorell, who coordianted the panel discussion. “Any time we can get mental health professionals and families in the same room is a good thing.”

For more information, visit www.virginiachildrenstheatre.org and www.tudorhouse.net. Also, the collaboration will be featured on an upcoming episode of BUZZ (buzz4good.com) airing on Blue Ridge PBS, which features nonprofit organizations receiving pro bono marketing resources and is produced by the author.

Michael Hemphill is a former award-winning newspaper reporter, and less lauded stay-at-home dad, who...