You could say that recovery is having a moment in pop culture. As The New York Times recently reported, multiple plays about addiction and recovery have received prominent productions this year, and many of the theatre artists involved are open about their own recovery. While this spate of plays on the subject may do their part to destigmatize addiction, has the theatre field itself become any more hospitable to artists in recovery? The answer, according to several artists I spoke to, is mixed.
It may be surprising to outsiders, given the recent uptick in sobriety plays, that the decision to be public about one’s recovery remains controversial within group-based programs. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), formed in the 1930s, discourages its members from discussing their addiction in the press, with some positing that the alcoholic ego could become addicted to the attention.
But the people I spoke to for this article feel that coming forward about their recovery, however controversial, is now an urgent necessity in a nation where upwards of 190 people die of overdoses each day. And sharing your story as a public service can be even more vital in a field where substances often play a disproportionate role.
“Most of our industry revolves around substances,” says Jeremy Cohen, artistic director of Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, who has been sober for 25 years and says that bars are frequently suggested as alternative venues for giving notes after rehearsals. “I have been public in news sources about being in recovery, and I make that choice because I have been able to support theatre artists who need to get sober or get clean.”
While Cohen happens to run an important regional institution, others feel that being public no matter your level of power can help someone who is suffering. “You don’t even know how many young women write to me after reading something [I wrote] and ask me how I got sober,” says Lisa Ramirez, an actor and playwright who credits an article in which playwright Eve Ensler discussed her sobriety with pushing her into recovery. Ramirez’s play Pas de Deux (lost my shoe) explores the intertwined alcoholism of members of her family. “I lost my brother to the disease. It’s important that people know that. I feel very strongly about being public with my sobriety.”
Sean Daniels has been very public about his recovery. The writer/director, who once lost an associate artistic director position because he was intoxicated at work, recently had his semi-autobiographical play, The White Chip, run Off-Broadway. Speaking from Tucson, Ariz., where he is now artistic director of Arizona Theatre Company, Daniels says that the theatre is full of people in recovery, but many keep their sobriety private for fear of judgment or professional consequences. “Big party communities are big recovery communities,” he says. This tendency can blur into the professional world all too easily; as Daniels puts it, “There aren’t a lot of places to run into high-profile artistic directors who are just hanging out like you can at a bar.”
“The way that theatre as a community is set up, you have to be sly to continue to be in recovery,” Maggie Carr, founder of Harridan Productions, says of experiences she has had as an actor and producer. “You end up always saying, ‘I don’t drink.’ It would be easier if I didn’t always have to say, ‘I don’t drink.’”
Indeed the decision to attend professional development or networking opportunities can be especially difficult for people in recovery, and even having a high-level position does not make accommodations automatic. Daniels relays that even at a theatre company that staged The White Chip, “I still went to an event and there was nothing but wine there.”
“It’s difficult to network as someone who runs a company,” says Hannah Ii-Epstein, a playwright and co-artistic director of Chicago’s Nothing Without a Company (NWaC). She adds that the financial benefit of offering alcohol at shows and events further complicates this dilemma, both for her and anyone in recovery who attends. Daniels believes that nonprofit approaches to fundraising and development link increased alcohol use with increased donations. “One of our big mindsets is always, ‘Get the donors in, get them happy, get them sloshed,’” he says. “After I came public, we had donors and board members who came forward and said, ‘I’m in recovery, but I didn’t want to say anything.’”
Implementing best practices for the inclusion of theatremakers and patrons in recovery is often done at the personal level: An artist discloses their recovery to someone in the company they trust, and that person then goes out of their way to ensure that the artist is safe and comfortable. But these practices—often simple measures, like making sure water and soft drinks are an option alongside alcohol , even at celebratory events like opening night champagne toasts—can easily become company policies if theatres make the conscious choice to accommodate recovery at the institutional rather than merely the individual level.
Cohen emphasizes the importance of forewarning patrons about the presence of alcohol, illustrating how this can become standard protocol. “One of [our] practices is to have really clear language in the invitation that there is going to be alcohol at the event,” he offers. This “allows people to say, ‘I feel comfortable with that,’ or, ‘I don’t.’”
The prevalence of alcohol in work culture pervades many industries, but dependency especially resonates for many in the theatre community. “I almost had the satisfaction prior to my recovery of, ‘Well, I’m a playwright, I’m supposed to be miserable, I’m supposed to be a drunk,’” says playwright Grace Connolly, whose play Moses deals with addiction. “Look at O’Neill, look at Shepard. I really identified with that and was convinced I was gonna have this tragic life.”
For Ramirez, combating the trope of the tortured artist is a kind of personal mission. “I feel like if you are an artist, then the odds are that you probably had enough torture in your life to want to be an artist. I don’t think you need to perpetuate it or feel it to make it.”
An important step in dismantling the myth of the tortured artist, and the broader cultural stigma around addiction, is coming forward with these struggles. While this decision is different for everyone and people’s privacy should be respected, the artists I spoke with emphasized its merits. “Just like any other hardship that people are coming out about, it helps other people to hear that there are people who have found success or are in the same industry as them,” says Carr. “Exposure makes it less dangerous, and whispering about it like it’s something to be ashamed of keeps it hurting us.”
For Ii-Epstein, the reward of reminding people they’re not alone outweighs the risks of coming forward. When her play Not One Batu, which chronicles the meth epidemic in Hawaii, played on Oahu in 2016, audience members relayed their experiences of addiction and recovery to her. “My decision to be public about recovery is the same as my decision to be public about my past sexual assault,” Ii-Epstein says. “The more people talk about it, the [more] people who are going through that might hear a story, and that will help them recover.”
As more and more people in theatre have come forward with stories of abuse and harassment in recent years, it began a slow but (hopefully) steady rebuilding of parts of the field. Many theatre companies updated or introduced policies on harassment, and more resources for abuse survivors in theatre arose. Most people who spoke for this article had never worked with a theatre company that had a specific policy on working with theatremakers in recovery, directing depictions of drug or alcohol use onstage, or embracing the inclusion of recovery as a component of accessibility.
As with all instances of codified inclusion, institutional policies can only come from lived experiences. Directors who are in recovery themselves may have a special affinity for navigating a work environment with others in recovery, and can offer solutions to companies looking to embrace recovery inclusion. Cohen likens accommodating artists in recovery to accommodating artists balancing childcare: Just as a parent may need to adjust their rehearsal schedule to relieve a babysitter, an artist in recovery may need to make a change to attend a meeting. As a director, Cohen begins the first rehearsal by prioritizing safety and well-being.
“One of the things that safety means is that artists feel safe to come to me and say, ‘Hey, I wanted to let you know I’m dyslexic, so a different kind of script would be really helpful for me,’” Cohen says, arguing that the use of alcohol at theatre events or as props could be approached the same way.
“I’ve had people confide in me personally, which helps because then I can check in with them throughout the process,” Ii-Epstein says. “Whether it’s recovery or mental health or intimacy, or whatever the things are that people need a little more care with, we just provide them a little more care.” She said that when an actor auditioning said they would prefer to not play a character who drank because the play-drinking could trigger them, the NWaC team responded, “‘Okay, then we’ll just give you a character that doesn’t drink.’”
Daniels echoes this sentiment, noting that multiple people who worked on The White Chip are in recovery, and that the team decided to not use a real beer bottle onstage because it would likely have traces of alcohol in it. “Whenever there’s prop food, we always ask who has any allergies. But we don’t put the same thinking toward people in recovery, even though they just have an allergy to something else.”
While this kind of accommodation follows a good-practices precedent—taking note of allergies, taking care in directing scenes with sensitive content—some think that recovery inclusion should be incorporated within the framework of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Implementing policies on having non-alcoholic options at all theatre events or allowing time off for recovery meetings might open the door for artists in recovery, as well as for those who think that recovery is incompatible with theatremaking. The challenge lies in how to be more inclusive and welcoming of theatremakers in recovery without drawing unwanted attention to individuals’ recovery process. Some also fear that attempts at institutional inclusivity could backfire.
“This is the tricky thing, because you would feel no shame, or that you would lose jobs in the future, by checking ‘I don’t eat gluten’ on a form,” Daniels says. “But for the average actor, if there was a form that said, ‘Are you allergic to alcohol in any way?’, unless you were in a privileged position [where] you think it won’t affect future jobs, you may not say anything, even if the option was there, because the stigma is big enough.”
That stigma, as many of us know all too well, affects millions across the country and prevents people from seeking recovery treatment. Theatremakers in recovery who fear being seen as a liability may not know that discrimination they may have faced in the workplace is illegal. Indeed the definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) includes addiction and recovery, and employers are legally prohibited from firing an employee simply because they’re in recovery. It’s also therefore illegal to ask someone if they’re an addict before hiring them, or to deny accommodations for recovery. If, for example, you’re an actor trying to navigate a rehearsal schedule that consistently conflicts with your AA meetings, you are federally protected in asking for a schedule alteration.
Although the ADA’s protections have been expanded in the last 10 years, it’s still difficult to empower people in an industry of freelancers. It may be illegal for a theatre company to fire you for being in recovery, but many actors, directors, and designers are not resident company members. Word of mouth is still a dominant force in the field, and while everyone I spoke with felt supported in recovery by different colleagues over the years, the culture’s larger stigma around addiction remains indelibly prevalent.
“You still have to be careful when you’re working in an environment that you might not understand,” Carr says. “You never know who you’re gonna end up talking to, and what their perception of an alcoholic is.”
Here again the ADA may offer some hope for freelancers: It is illegal for one employer to tell another about an employee’s disability, as there is a presumption of confidentiality between parties. If a producer, director, manager, or anyone else in a supervisory position tells a colleague that you are in recovery when you are not public about it, you have a legal right to take action.
Deconstructing the stigma of addiction and recovery is an ongoing effort in all fields, but pushing back against theatre culture’s penchant for gossip can be an important first step in welcoming artists in recovery back to our community.
“We pride ourselves on being empathy generators,” Daniels says. “We pride ourselves on being a place that people can come and learn about other people while they sit in a seat for 90 minutes. Sometimes we’re not able to walk what we talk. We all kind of technically believe it’s a disease, but we also wonder if people shouldn’t have just pulled themselves together. We, as a field, can do better.”