Actors share addiction experience with high school kids

Left to right, Shahjehan Khan, Elizabeth Addison, and Dennis Staroselsky perform the first version of the designated driving skit at North Country Union High School to raise awareness.  Mr. Staroselsky plays the drunk driver who ends up crashing his car, killing himself and his two friends. Photos by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph

Left to right, Shahjehan Khan, Elizabeth Addison, and Dennis Staroselsky perform the first version of the designated driving skit at North Country Union High School to raise awareness. Mr. Staroselsky plays the drunk driver who ends up crashing his car, killing himself and his two friends. Photos by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph

copyright the Chronicle April 29, 2015

by Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph

NEWPORT — “I couldn’t possibly have a problem because I don’t like cocaine, I just like how it smells,” is one of the edgy jokes the Improbable Players, a Boston theater troupe, used to raise awareness about drug and alcohol abuse at North Country Union High School (NCUHS) on Tuesday.

The teens attending oohed and aahed and laughed often as the troupe performed on stage in the auditorium.

The initial skits were followed by a play and a question and answer period when the students could ask the actors anything that came to mind.

Actress Chris Everett kicked off the proceedings by interrupting Principal Bill Rivard as he introduced the troupe, saying they were there to talk about drugs and alcohol.

“Are you serious?” she said. “Another lecture? You guys want another lecture?”

After a first skit about how alcoholics aren’t always recognizable as such, and a second about how a designated driver can save lives, Ms. Everett and the other actors, Dennis Staroselsky, Elizabeth Addison, and Shahjehan Khan, performed I’ll never do that, a play that depicts a scene that may have been familiar to many of the kids in the auditorium.

In fact, the actors finished the hour-long event by asking kids to raise their hand if they knew anyone who did drugs or drank too much.

At least half of the people there raised their hand.

The play, which is based on the life of Improbable Players founder Lynn Bratley, was about a family that falls apart as the mother sinks further into alcoholism. The father is in denial about his wife’s condition, and scolds his daughter for talking about their family life to the student counselor.

His son ends up doing drugs himself and refuses to recognize he has a problem, claiming that he can stop his habit whenever he chooses to.

When his wife is hospitalized after falling down the stairs, the father finally gets help for his wife at his daughter’s insistence.

The play ended with a final dramatic family photo illustrating how drugs can break families but there’s still hope for healing.

“I know a lot of people who are into that stuff,” 14-year-old freshman Lettie Hale said about the drug abuse depicted in the show.

Many students stayed later to chat with the actors about their own experience with alcohol and drug users, and to ask for advice.

“This is a creative prevention in preventing underage alcohol abuse and substance abuse,” said Lesley Becker, Northeast Kingdom Learning Services Prevention Coordinator.

She arranged for the Improbable Players to come to the school.

“This area is statistically very high for alcohol binge drinking,” she said.

According to NCUHS results from a 2013 Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 27 percent of students there were “binge drinking (five drinks in a row) in the past 30 days.” That’s 8 percent more than the state percentage.

Ms. Becker hopes that a creative medium featuring real world experiences will encourage kids to get a youth group going.

The Improbable Players are made up of recovering addicts who share their experience through theater to help prevent kids from becoming addicts themselves.

Working to raise awareness through creativity has been part of the actors’ recovery process. To perform, actors have to have been sober for at least one year.

“If I think about taking a drink, I think, oh, but I could lose my job,” Ms. Everett said.

She started drinking when she was 12 or 13 years old and stopped 18 years later. She’s been sober for 17 years.

Ms. Addison, who came from a family with a history of alcoholism and started drinking and smoking at a young age, has been sober for three years. After losing friends and jobs, she’s turned her life around and is engaged.

Mr. Khan came from a religious family that didn’t drink or smoke. He dropped out of college and was kicked out of his rock band because of substance abuse. He’s been sober for four years, is back in college and is in a band again.

Chris Everett of the Improbable Players shows what a stereotypical alcoholic looks like, featuring a “big ugly coat that’s also their house,” a single glove with the fingers removed so they can do drugs and open bottles of alcohol more easily, and a big knit hat.

Chris Everett of the Improbable Players shows what a stereotypical alcoholic looks like, featuring a “big ugly coat that’s also their house,” a single glove with the fingers removed so they can do drugs and open bottles of alcohol more easily, and a big knit hat.

Mr. Staroselsky used drugs to deal with anxiety problems. He’s been sober for eight years, and became a father last year.

Students asked a variety of questions, from how the actors got together and started performing together, to how hard it was to get sober.

“The one that was in front of me,” Mr. Staroselsky said to a student who asked what his favorite alcohol had been.

He told them that if the only thing in his home had been mouthwash, that’s what he would have drunk.

“It’s an obsessive disease that has no rational thought,” he said.

Another student asked him what he would do if he were in an accident and was prescribed pain medication. He said he would seek advice from his doctor and other recovering addicts.

They asked the actors if they were ever afraid of relapsing.

“If I pick up a drink, I don’t know when I’m going to stop,” Ms. Everett said.

She said she didn’t think she could go through the process again, but that over the years she developed buffers to handle cravings, like telling someone when she thinks of drinking, and praying.

The troupe had three performances and a workshop scheduled for Tuesday.

While they don’t teach acting or improvisation, the actors in the troupe have participants finish the sentence: “I hate it when drugs and alcohol…” and document the answers, Mr. Staroselsky said.

After, participants choose the response that resonates with them the most and that response is staged.

“It empowers them to communicate messages they want to communicate and think creatively about issues,” Mr. Staroselsky said.

contact Nathalie Gagnon-Joseph at [email protected]

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