Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, shopping, gambling or something else, addiction’s hold is strong. For the PVA theater seniors at Annapolis High School, it’s an issue they’ve been addressing for over a year, specifically the heroin epidemic. After being approached to be a part of the Governor’s Emergency Heroin and Opioid task force by Ken Skrzesz, the Coordinator of Fine Arts as MSDE, these seniors toured a devised theater performance to middle schools, luncheons, teacher’s conferences and inpatient rehabilitation centers. And though the seniors will soon be graduating high school, they all know the performance has touched them in many ways.
“I guess the cliche saying “if my art can help just one person, I will feel good,” is true for me,” said Austin Ubannwa, who plays many roles as part of the ensemble, “To hear it touched somebody makes me want to continue to have this effect on people. Specifically, I learned that when you’re facing a crisis, you can’t do it alone all the time. Support makes the healing process more achievable.”
When asked why he brought this to the PVA seniors, Ken Skrzesz said, “My hope was the theatre departments across the state would have created impactful work seen by thousands of students. Now, I realize, if only one student is positively changed the initiative has worked.”
The process for creating this piece was a lengthy one, but it had to be to ensure that the students fully understood the issue. “The piece involved a fair amount of research into what addiction is like,” commented Seth Hanley, who primarily plays as one of the two characters suffering from a heroin addiction, “Many of us do not have the personal experience to draw from in this circumstance and thus we delved into the plethora of shared experiences online provided by rehab centers.”
“We went over first hand pieces from people who’d actually been addicted to drugs,” added Miel Hunt, who also plays many roles in the ensemble, “One of the best things was art from the addicts.” After talking to one of their teachers, Jeffrey Harrison, about a “back door approach”, and another student, Matt Lucente, brought up an interesting internet video he had watched, Miel Hunt came up with an idea. The group had decided from the beginning that they wanted something physical to represent the addiction, and that because this was initially targeted at 8th graders, they wanted it to be a secret that the performance was about drugs. Miel Hunt brought up the idea of using coats as a metaphor, and the students ran with it.
After touring the performance to several middle schools, they happened to perform at a luncheon addressing the heroin issue, and their piece blew up. Amanda Larkins, a supervisor at Pathways, a rehabilitation center, reached out to students and has now been able to bring the students in to perform for patients. “I was speechless,” she said after witnessing the performance for the first time, “It is so emotional and the actors portray the reality of addiction, the heroin epidemic, and the hope of recovery. The piece takes you in so many directions and the moment you realize the connection between the coat and heroin is quite astonishing. It uncovers the mental health connection, the fact the addiction doesn’t discriminate, internal pressure, peer pressure, the hope of recovery, and the unfortunate reality that addiction is lifelong and every day will be a battle.”
As for why she brought a performance originally about prevention to recovering addicts, she answered, “I think for people in treatment or in recovery it brings them hope. You can see them shake their heads in agreement to so many parts of the piece. You can see them make a connection and that will not be forgotten on their journey of recovery. I think the intention for me was to promote the piece for prevention purposes, however, this piece is appropriate for prevention, intervention, and recovery.”
After performing at Pathways, Miel Hunt said, “To talk to real addicts and to get their perspective on the piece [was a meaningful experience].To have the piece validated in that way was amazing. I learned that there is no difference between them and us. Oftentimes that’s one of the biggest issues is breaking the divide. We can make an impact despite not being addicted ourselves or not having a personal connection.” Austin Ubannwa added, “To know we actually touched them in some way was a good feeling. It’s why we do this.”
And the students aren’t stopping there. With 40 performances under their belt, the PVA seniors have 10 more before they graduate, and won’t stop trying to make their community, and the world, a better place. “We have the power and we should use it,” Miel Hunt said, “Even if we impact one person, that’s enough.