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Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Andy Short: That was a moment where it was so clear to me, right. Like, this show had an impact on this person, and because I’m doing this work, like, I feel a sense of real value and connection to my recovery.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker, Executive Director of the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to “Creative Minds Out Loud.” Our guest today is Andy Short, Executive Director of Improbable Players, and welcome to our program.
Andy Short: Thank you so much for having me.
Anita Walker: Now, you just told me, and I have air quotes here, listeners, that Improbable Players is “franchised”–
Anita Walker: –across the country. Say more.
Andy Short: It’s– well, yeah. I joke that we’re the McDonald’s of applied theater education, but no, we– so we have three troupes, and they’re all run out of our office in Watertown, Massachusetts, but there’s one troupe obviously in Massachusetts. There’s one troupe in New York and there’s one troupe in Cleveland, and those are all made up of actors who are themselves in recovery from substance addiction. So they kind of bring with them when they’re acting out the stories that we’ve collected, they bring with them kind of the depth of their experience and that’s how we deliver programs, to primarily schools, but we also have been doing a lot more work in community and working with different organizations that have kind of like missions.
Anita Walker: So there’s really two sides to this story and I’m interested to hear both of them. There’s the message that you project when you go into schools and do performances for others, but there’s also the impact you’re having on the people in the troupe.
Andy Short: That’s– you might be one of the first people that get that right off the bat. It’s a two-sided model, right. So a lot of the energy that goes into treati– like, solving the opioid crisis, working on addition, goes into treatment, right, and so what you lose is the prevention piece kind of at the beginning, before people start, and then the long-term recovery piece. So a lot of services drop off for folks who are in recovery after about a year, and so what we try to do is we go to schools with the message that, “You’re probably going to experience someone who has an addiction at some point in your life, and we want to show you through theater what are some things you can do to help that person, what are some things you can do to help yourself, to make sure you’re okay.” We don’t start from the place of, “Hey, anyone who takes a drink, you’re going to become an alcoholic.” It’s not realistic. Kids don’t listen to that message. So that’s some of the destigmatizing and prevention work that we try to do, and then on the other side, folks like myself who, you know, I loved theater, I was in recovery– still am– and it brings those two things together in a paying job that in such a way that we create a community and a support for people to continue their recovery well past, you know, a year. We have actors who credit their recovery with working with us. I’m one of those. I remember I was three years sober. I was, you know, working at Starbucks at the time, had just graduated college. Really was pretty depressed, and the problem was I couldn’t get sober again, right. So like the first time I felt really depressed I was able to get treatment for my addiction, and that was kind of what solved that problem at the time, and so here I am, three years sober. I’m depressed again. I don’t know what to do. You know, I’m trying therapy, I’m trying meds, I’m trying different things, and it’s not working, and I got this call from this woman, <laughs> Lynn Bratley, who founded the company. She had found me. She has like an ear for people who like theater and are in recovery, and she found me. I was like sitting on the stoop outside my Starbucks and she gave– she basically said, “Why don’t you come and audition?” and that, for me, that work and feeling like my story was now useful to people, that kept me in recovery and it kept me sane, and now here I am, still doing it.
Anita Walker: So let’s talk about that side of the equation, the actors that are part of the troupe and the impact that they’re having on their lives. Is this only for people who are actors already or are naturally inclined to be actors, or could someone who never even thought about acting be part of Improbable Players?
Andy Short: We have both. So we have, you know, all the way on the side of– we have actually our, one of our main actors has been with us for, think, seven years. His name is Dennis Staroselsky. His career’s taking off. He’s a professional actor. He was in “The Deuce” in HBO and he was in a movie with Jeremy Irons recentl– you know, a serious actor and also teaches at Lesley and is amazing, and so we have that, and then the other side of the spectrum we have some folks like one of our actors, John, and another Megan, who really they come from different often performance-based, so it’s ofte– you know, John is a musician, and he wasn’t really an actor before working with us, and then Megan is a storyteller, and a recovery coach, and so wasn’t really doing that work before working with us either and we kind of– we try to train and cultivate those skills but in a way that we start with the real prerequisite is, “Are you in long-term recovery?” and then we work on the rest if we can, if you can take direction and project a little bit.
Anita Walker: So short of being that lucky guy sitting on the stoop at Starbucks on a certain day when a certain person approached you and gave you this opportunity, how do people connect with Improbable Players? Is it referrals from recovery programs or how do they find you?
Andy Short: So it’s often word of mouth. It’s often personal connections of actors that are in the troupe. So that’s how I got connected with Lynn and– but we als– we’ll put out calls. So we’ll do, you know, StageSource posting. We’ll post in different areas. Often it’s funny. When we post in the traditional theatery audition places and we say, you know, “It is a requirement to be sober,” and people will say, <laughs> “Well, I didn’t– I’m sober right now.” You know, <laughs> “I didn’t drink this weekend,” and like, “Actually, we mean a little bit more involved than that.” So we ask people, you know, “What is your sobriety date.” That’s a pretty good measure. If they– If someone understands what that means and has a date, that’s a pretty good indicator of that we’re on the same page on what recovery means, what we’re looking for. But yeah, it’s mostly word of mouth. But occasionally a posting will hit and we’ll get someone amazing who just sees it and comes on in. Actually, some of our more recent actors have been like that, but yeah. It’s a weird job. <laughs>
Anita Walker: So you said when you were telling your own story that you had been in recovery and you’d tried medication and you’d tried different kinds of therapy. What is it about this? Why is this working for you?
Andy Short: Because when I did– so I kind of have to answer with another story. So the first show that I did at a school, it’s a– it was a play actually based on Lynn’s story of recovery and how addiction affects a family, right. So I played the son. I wore a baseball hat. It was very cute, and then– and I had to play <laughs> like, you know, four years old to eight years old to teenager.
Anita Walker: You shaved.
Andy Short: I shaved. I shaved.
Anita Walker: <laughs>
Andy Short: And when I shave I look like a baby. I know this is a, you know, they said audio is a visual medium, and just imagine that in your mind’s eye, but I did the show and I was this brother character, the son character, who struggled with addiction towards the end of the show, and this girl came up to me after, it was student, and she was crying, and said, you know, “My– that character that you played is just like my brother. He just dropped out of school. We have no idea what to do.” Like, “My parents fight all the time.” Just like interest he show, right. That’s one of the pieces that you see, and so I said, “Well, who– what are your resources?” She’s like, “Well, we have this counselor–” and kind of walked her through the steps she could take to get herself help, right. So she’s not the one with the addiction, but she recognized what was happening because of the show and then we could kind of plan out, and then we– what we do is so we try to connect them with local resources and then we’ll follow up with the school to say, “Listen. I had a conversation with this student. You should know,” and I’ll say that to the student as well. It’s not a surprise. I’ll say, “Listen. I think we should talk to someone,” and so that moment, like, that was really early on in my time with the Players, and that was the moment where I was like, “Oh.” Like, “This theater thing–” I mean, you know, theater people, we love to believe that the theater changes the world, and like, “Oh.”
Anita Walker: Well, it does. It does.
Andy Short: It does. But we– that was a moment where it was so clear to me, right. Like, this show had an impact on this person, and because I’m doing this work, like, I feel a sense of real value and connection to my recovery, and that was kind of– that propelled me through, and moments like that have happened throughout–
Anita Walker: Where do the stories come from? Do you– do the Players write the stories? Are these your stories you’re telling on stage to the school groups?
Andy Short: So it’s been different over time. So the initial play, like I said, was Lynn’s story. It was biographical, largely, and then we’ve created over time plays. I’d say every several years or so we’ll make a new show, and often those are a form of applied theater, so we’ll go and collect stories from our community or from different communities that we’re not necessarily part of but reflect the recovery narrative, because we want to showcase that, and then we will theatricalize it. So it’s not quite documentary theater, if we’re getting nerdy. You said I could get nerdy. It’s not quite verbatim theater, because definitely we take some liberty with the exact dialogue, but they’re– the structure of the story is based on something that we collected and then are enacting. So the other piece to know is that we are not psychodrama, so we don’t have actors write their story and then act out their story. I, you know, I have feelings about that as a practitioner.
Anita Walker: So say more.
Andy Short: Yeah. I think it can be tricky and it can be for some people dangerous, depending on what their experience is, and I don’t use that word lightly but it’s– we want to avoid the problem of re-experiencing trauma and asking actors who might say they’re totally solid and might feel quite comfortable where they are, asking them to re kind of walk through the– some of the hardest moments over and over again. Because we’re doing a show that we– we write a show and then we’re doing it for– over and over and over again at different schools.
Anita Walker: You wouldn’t call yourself a therapist.
Andy Short: No.
Anita Walker: You’re an actor.
Andy Short: Yeah.
Anita Walker: And so this is theater that has tremendous impact, both on the participants and the audiences, but you wouldn’t put yourself in a medical model.
Andy Short: No. No. The reason for that is we don’t have– we emerged from a specific tradition. We don’t have social workers on staff, and frankly when– both for– on the school side, we’re going and doing a show for 45 minutes and then we’re doing a talk-back, and then often that’s it for the year, right. So we haven’t built a therapeutic container, so to speak, to then work with everyone we’re reaching. Certainly people respond to the work. Certainly we want to be ready to hook them up with more sustainable counseling in their area, and that’s something we take really seriously, and we’re not trying to pretend that that is what we’re set up to do and what– the tradition we’re emerging from is. Does that make sense?
Anita Walker: Perfect sense. Perfect sense, and that was a clarity that I really wanted to bring out in the conversation, that because the power of culture, the power of the arts can be therapeutic, it doesn’t mean our field is turning itself into therapists. It’s just one of the wonderful impacts that arts participation can have on people’s well-being and happiness and help, help writ large. So the last question I want to ask you is you must have a really interesting vantage point on this thing that we do called the opioid epidemic, in Massachusetts, in America, all over the world quite frankly, and how do you see that from your work?
Andy Short: So I think the thing that we do best– let me back up a little bit, and then I’m going to back into the answer to your question. Prevention work is happening often at the middle school level, and it’s happening most effectively when you’re doing repeated engagements over time, right, and so that’s something that we try to do and aren’t always able to do, and so I think what we do best, we do do– we do some prevention, but a real function that we’re serving is to decrease stigma, right. I think that’s probably what we do best. I think it’s what theater can do really well, and we are introducing people to people who are in recovery, right, and that is a narrative we put forward in everything we do, and stigma is, I think, the reason that, you know, not to sound too radical, but that people aren’t marching in the streets, right, because this epidemic is worse than in terms of deaths than HIV. The reason I think with don’t see that kind of outrage that honestly, I feel like is appropriate given the scale of the problem is because of stigma, and it’s not been– it’s an ongoing effort, because the thing that you learn as someone who’s in recovery is actually that stigma, it comes from outside, but it comes from inside too, right. So I felt shame about my addiction before anyone told me I should feel that way, right, and so to get up there in front of people and share a narrative of that, yes, recovery is possible, that recovery is for everyone, it’s not just for the person who has a substance addiction. It is for my mom who loved me. It is for my brother who had no idea what was going on. You know, they’re– that that is something we can all access. That’s something that I think theater is uniquely set up to do. It’s something that I feel like we do well with our work and it’s really the power of it.
Anita Walker: And the power of culture.
Andy Short: Yes.
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Anita Walker: Andy Short, Executive Director of Improbable Players, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Andy Short: Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit creativemindsoutloud.org.