Massachusetts is currently experiencing an epidemic of opiate addiction that is ravaging our communities and our youth. It is in the headlines on an almost daily basis. Task forces have been formed and prevention budgets bolstered. However, if we expect young people to “just say no” to a chemical high we must recognize the healing alternative: their own creativity. Theater is the real anti-drug program.
The geographic position of Franklin County off of Interstate-91 has made our community a prime target for drug trafficking along the I-91 corridor, which has been nicknamed the “heroin highway.” In the past ten years, heroin use has grown exponentially in our community and in the past three years the rate of youth prescription drug misuse and abuse has nearly doubled, making substance use in adolescence an extremely important problem to address in order to meet the needs of local families.
In 2015, in response to this statewide epidemic, we launched The Recovery Theatre, a new initiative within the Hilltown Youth Theatre Performing Arts Programs. The Recovery Theatre is a strength based, holistic model creating change for area youth through theatre and the arts. It began with a pre-workshop, five-day Recovery Intensive for ten young people overcoming addiction, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. As one seventeen year-old participant observed: “In the mornings we collaborated with guest artists on voice work, movement, puppets, make making, documentary songwriting and work on large apparatus (e.g., aerial fabrics, spools, flying trapeze); in the afternoons we wrote ‘goodbye letters’ to our addiction, created small monologues and complied them together. We chose pieces of people’s recovery stories and turned them into dramas. I’ve been in treatment for a few years. That lying on the couch therapy didn’t really help. This was active therapy!” (Greenfield Recorder, 2015.) Our goal is for participants and graduates to become advocates who continue utilizing the arts for their own growth and healing.
At the heart of addiction and craving is traumatic stress, the stuck, and hence repeating, energetic survival states of fight, flight or freeze. For adolescents, especially, substance use is also a risk-taking activity that releases dopamine and endorphins and activates parts of the brain associated with pleasure. Consequently, the field of addiction medicine is paying more attention to the neurobiology of trauma. The thinking is that we don’t just process trauma and addiction mentally and emotionally but physiologically. With this renewed focus on the mind-body connection and somatic psychotherapies, the challenge is to develop creative ways to intervene in and disrupt self-destructive patterns of abuse. Interventions are needed that take into account adolescents developing endocrine and nervous systems, incorporate families and social supports and emphasize peer interactions so important to this age group.
Attachment theory, bringing adolescent substance users back into healthy connection and community, is another vitally important piece of the puzzle when designing programming for this population. Writes Paul McNeil, Director of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County “Your theatre-based intervention offers young people access to networks of safety and unconditional peer love. We see theatre and performing arts as another tool in the toolbox of existing Complimentary Alternative Modalities (CAM) of therapy. In a way, your mission prescribes plays over pills.” Feedback from participants’ parents and guardians support these observations. Writes one mother:
“The Recovery Theater was a godsend for helping our family support a young lady, newly living with us, who was struggling with a recent heroin exposure. I had no idea where to even start in helping her. The Recovery Intensive provided the perfect combination of both structure and adrenalin rush (a.k.a. trapeze) that kept her connected. We could not have navigated this summer without this program...Little did I know that it would also be a pivotal experience for my son. He struggles with severe anxiety. The week provided him with so many positive and meaningful experiences. Through drama and prose, he was able to find a voice for some of his fears. The balance between being on the edge of panic yet strangely safe at the same time allowed him to sleep and laugh in ways we rarely see. Finally, both kids felt so accepted as human beings yet totally hearing that their addiction and anxiety levels weren’t okay. They heard the reality that those broken parts didn’t have to define them.”
Recovery Intensives are now offered year-round and our summer intensive has been expanded to two weeks. Critical to the project’s success is an after-school program and the three-week Hilltown Youth Theatre Summer Workshop providing meaningful friendships and experiences where participants can continue to push themselves to explore their newly found skills and confidence. The program concludes with performances of a traveling, outdoor summer spectacle. Participants design, develop and co-create the productions, which include original pieces of work and adaptations of literary classics from Shakespeare (Shakespeare In Like) to C.S. Lewis (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and from Tolken (The Hobbit) to J.M. Barrie (The Little White Bird or Peter Pan). In 2018 the Workshop and the two-week, pre-workshop Recovery Intensives will take place on the bucolic two acre campus of the Hawlemont School in Charlemont MA. And Berkshire East will be the venue for our performances of Avatar our first full mountain spectacle!
We measure our success one youth at a time. One of our performers, a founding member of the Recovery Theatre and Summer Workshop participant, Rose (name changed), was expelled from her school for breaking its substance abuse policy. During an exercise in her first recovery intensive, Rose was asked to write a “goodbye letter" to her addiction. The activity is designed to help participants "externalize" their problems, to begin seeing themselves as up against a problem rather than their being the problem. Rose wrote the following letter to her addiction:
"Dear Narcotics, Pot (acid, alcohol) etc.
Thanks for all you've done for me. You've helped me forget my
problems. You've made me feel good. You've made me see the world
in a whole new perspective. You've made me fail out of my freshman year.
You've made me ruin the lining of my esophagus and stomach.
You've made the relationship with my parents go down
hill...I've gotten fucked up emotionally and used by abusing you;
even after all those complaints I don't want to give you up because I'll be alone."
A Recovery Story...
After attending a 14-day rehab program Rose joined us on the set of one of our spectacles. She had no prior acting experience and started out helping to design costumes and props. She went with us to see Double Edge Theatre’s production of Shahrazad, her first time witnessing live theater. The following day she asked for a small speaking part. She worked with several of our visiting artists, young interns from Double Edge Theatre, on developing her scene work. These were people she never would have encountered in her daily life. Some performers find their way into the arts through high-powered college and graduate programs while others struggle in school. Similar to Rose, these artists discovered early in life that more conventional approaches to learning didn't bring out their best creativity and effort. At the conclusion of the program, Rose performed on stage for the first time—three sellout shows to 600+ audience members. The next summer she took on a larger role and was part of our first ever “Girls Leadership and Theater Training” The purpose of this daylong retreat is to help young women develop the LEADERSHIP skills and self-confidence they need to succeed on the stage and in life as well as to nurture strong, positive relationships with peers and adults. Two years ago she graduated from high school and was awarded a $60,000 scholarship to attend Curry College.
Perhaps the most important measurement of our success is the program's gradual transition from being staff-driven to student-led. In 2017 we hired 9 student-faculty at $15 per hour including our music director Zach Arfa (Oberlin College), our assistant music director Franklin Speck (NYU), our production director Eli W. Shearer (St Lawrence), our assistant set designer Ellis Townsely (Mt. Holyoke), stage manager (Air Force), a trapeze artist apprentice Cassie Kudlay (HCC) and our assistant aerial fabrics instructor Maeve Gallaghar (Becker College). Additionally, we took on one high school and two college interns (seniors at Fitchburg State and UMASS respectively) and five work-study participants. In sum, we provided meaningful summer employment in the arts community for 16 young people. (All but one were alumni of our programs.) In her summers, Rose helped earn money for school by staffing our three-week theatre workshop and two-week, pre-workshop recovery intensive. Lastly, one of the numbers we’re most proud of is the $42,000 we’ve circulated back into the local arts economy over the past four years. We will continue carefully tracking these figures and participant feedback in order to evaluate our success.
“A real source of strength"
Saying ‘Goodbye’ to Anxiety
Learning How to Fall
It never ceases to amaze me how a dozen people, all with messy lives and loads of luggage, have the ability to create the most calming and therapeutic environment for one another. We had the whole building to ourselves, only lit by a total of four lanterns. I was so worry free I lost the concept of time. My only focus was breathing to the music and matching my body movements to everybody else’s. It sounds strange but it’s the best therapy I’ve had in my whole life in comparison to sitting on a couch with my muscles tense and ready to bolt out of the room at any second. After the training, we gathered again in the lantern lit space to put some words into writing. —ALEX S (age 15)
One of the things I’m most proud about the Recovery Theatre, and why I am so honored to be a part of it, is the opportunity it gives young people to claim ownership of the title “artist” after having gone through something in their lives that they feel is really labeling them in a negative way. And so taking ownership of a positive label and a positive title like actor or performer is just an incredibly refreshing thing to see.—ALYSSA WRIGHT, Co-founder Recovery Theatre
The Recovery Theater was a godsend for helping our family support a young lady, newly living with us, who was struggling with a recent heroin exposure. I had no idea where to even start in helping her. The Recovery Intensive provided the perfect combination of both structure and adrenalin rush (a.k.a. trapeze) that kept her connected. We could not have navigated this summer without this program...Little did I know that it would also be a pivotal experience for my son. He struggles with severe anxiety. The week provided him with so many positive and meaningful experiences. Through drama and prose, he was able to find a voice for some of his fears. The balance between being on the edge of panic yet strangely safe at the same time allowed him to sleep and laugh in ways we rarely see. Finally, both kids felt so accepted as human beings yet totally hearing that their addiction and anxiety levels weren’t okay. They heard the reality that those broken parts didn’t have to define them.--KAM O. (Parent)
As a parent of a 14 year-old daughter who could not attend eighth grade due to her panic disorder, her experience in the Recovery Intensive was just what she needed after a brutal year of isolation, teasing and therapy. She told me that for the first time she felt “okay” to share how her anxiety had interrupted her life. She never felt like the outsider. She felt accepted just as she was. She started to gain her self esteem back and felt empowered. My daughter was back!—SANDI M. (parent ’16 & 17)
My daughter came out of her shell in the Recovery Intensive. She spoke her mind, contributed in the group setting and discovered new ways for self expression…Her self hatred and low self esteem seemed to just drift away! It was amazing to watch her grow so significantly in such a small amount of time…She put a lot of her heart and soul into this experience and I can't say enough good about her time in both workshops. She's also better able to channel her anxiety, sings more, draws more engages more…And she's found her passion in the trapeze!—DANIELLE N. (parent 15, 16, 17)
Your theatre-based intervention offers young people access to networks of safety and unconditional peer love...In a way, your mission prescribes plays over pills.—PAUL McNEIL, Director of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County “