Meth on Stage

(Excerpt from the book, Crystal Death by Nate Hendley)

“Meth” was the name of a combined play and interactive event put on by Headlines Theatre, an edgy but professional company based in Vancouver, BC.

“The company’s work has always been issue-based,” explains artistic and managing director David Diamond, over the phone.

Diamond helped found the group back in 1981. Previous works put on by Headlines include plays on racism, violence, homelessness, safe sex, affordable housing, Palestine and Israel, poverty, etc.

“We got a call from the Sto:Lo nation here in Fraser Valley … they wanted to know if we would come and talk about a project,” recalls Diamond, citing the genesis of the “Meth”.

On January 6, 2006, staff from Headlines met with the Sto:Lo First Nations band in Chilliwack, BC. One of the elders praised Headlines for a 1992 performance called “Out of the Silence” that explored the previously taboo topic of family violence in Indian communities.

“She said, ‘We were wondering if you could do something like ‘The Silence’ on methamphetamine—because it’s killing our communities’,” recalls Diamond.

A decision was made and Headlines Theatre committed itself to putting on a production about methamphetamine addiction. Staff set about fundraising (while Headlines gets some cash from the Canada Council and other government bodies, they also rely on donations and sponsorships to cover the cost of productions. “Meth” was initially budgeted at about $150 – 180,000), casting and generating ideas.

The word went out that Headlines was interested in contacting former meth users or friends and family of users.

“We were looking for people who had issues with meth, either ex-addicts—they couldn’t be current addicts—or people who had loved ones who had been addicted,” explains Diamond.

Headlines received applications for 59 people with some association with meth. This was whittled down to a core group of 21. Out of this smaller group, Diamond selected six actors to perform in the play. The cast consisted of native and non-natives alike, most of whom were not professional thespians. Three of the actors were former meth addicts while the other three had meth-addicted family members.

A workshop was held, with actors, contributors and Headlines staff to determine the play’s content.  The idea was to depict the lives of methamphetamine users in a brutally honest fashion. Through intense discussion and improvisation the structure, dialogue and plot of the play was worked out. Among other things, the play would depict the violent, sordid existence of meth addicts inside a “crank house”.

“Meth” debuted November 30, 2006 in Vancouver and proved an instant hit. Headlines Theatre took to the road, performing the play in over two-dozen BC communities. This was no small feat: “we travelled with a 15-passenger van and five-ton truck,” says Diamond.

The sets and lighting were handled by professionals and everyone involved in the production was paid union wages—“it’s not a little skit,” notes Diamond, about the show.

While professionally presented, the performance was anything but traditional. A typical performance consisted of the play itself—which lasted about 25 minutes—followed by what Diamond refers to as “an event”. The actors returned to the stage to start the play all over again, this time with audience participation. Audience members could yell “Stop!” and take to the stage themselves, to interact with the performers or add their own insights about methamphetamine addiction. Diamond’s role was to play “The Joker”—a facilitator who introduced the play, encouraged audience participation and put forward questions to provoke discussion.

This highly interactive theatrical experience hit a nerve and was well-received, with over 5,600 people taking in the show at 28 BC performances. An anonymous donation of around $170,000 from a foundation allowed Headlines to host a western Canada tour in 2008. The play underwent a name-change, to “Shattering” but otherwise was still focused on meth in specific and addiction in general.

“I don’t think this play could have been written by a writer or performed by actors that didn’t have lived experiences [with meth],” states Diamond.

He makes it clear, however, that this was a theatrical, not a therapeutic, forum. Performing the play was hard work—“it’s not therapy for them,” says Diamond, about the actors involved.

“We weren’t touring to save anyone’s life—how presumptuous of us to do that … we were touring to stimulate and be part of as deep a conversation about addiction as possible in every community we were in, period,” he continues.

The play “managed to be very authentic. It had a profound effect on people all over western Canada. It was a really successful piece … audience members, regardless of where they were coming from, could sit there and recognize themselves and how they fit into the addiction puzzle in their own communities,” Diamond adds.

(Nate Hendley is a Toronto-based author and writer. Click on this link for information on his books)

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