A foursome of actors kept a Watertown High School auditorium packed with students mesmerized during a recent performance as part of the Erase the Stigma Week.
The actors came from the Improbable Players, a theater company made up of former substance abusers. The group was created by Watertown resident Lynn Bratley 31 years ago this October after she had gotten into recovery from alcohol addiction.
The group has traveled around New England, educating students of all ages about substance abuse prevention. A satellite group of former members from the Boston area started another chapter in New York City, which tours around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Bratley said.
Bratley, the founder, artistic director and executive director of Improbable Players, wrote and performed with the group for the first 10 years, or so. They were based upon her own experiences.
“We have done about 10 different plays, but the first was about a family,” Bratley said. “Then teachers asked, do you have anything that deals with this, or that. As issues come up, we need to deal with it.”
Improbable Players performs most years at Watertown Middle School thanks to a grant from the Watertown Community Foundation. This year, the Cummings Foundation provided funding to bring the group to the high school as part of the week of activities in town that raised awareness about substance abuse – particularly opiates and heroin.
Bratley also spoke at the Erase the Stigma Week public event at the Watertown High School Gym. She said she was glad to see more people in town focusing on the problems of substance abuse.
“For a long time it felt like I was on an island dealing with this problem,” Bratley said.
Quite different from “don’t do drugs” campaigns of the past, the Improbable Players present scenarios based on real-life situations. They moved quickly from one scene to the next, mixing a little humor with the serious and often dark moments of the depictions of drug and alcohol addiction.
The actors showed how someone first starts using substances, then escalates to harder drugs and descends into a habit that they cannot kick. Bratley said the stories seem real because they are real.
“What’s not covered in the script, the actors fill it out with their personal experiences,” Bratley said.
In one scene, an actor talks about trying to get drugs, not having money, stealing and getting over his head. Each time, he spun around and a rope he was holding made more and more loops around him. Finally he yells, “Help!” and his friends come to untangle him from the rope.
After the performance was over, the four actors sat down and told the students about their addiction, and how long they had been in recovery. One was addicted to sleeping pills from the age of eight, a second started smoking pot in high school, another ended up living on the street because of his addiction and one woman started smoking marijuana but the trouble really began when she started drinking.
They also took questions from the students, like, is marijuana a gateway drug, did the government help when they were addicted and if they worry that marijuana is becoming a mainstream drug.
The actors also stuck around after the performance to talk with students one-on-one if they had additional questions.
Watertown High School Principal Shirley Lundberg said she thought the play really got the students attention, and got through to them. Just as a movie shown to the school called “If Only” had earlier in the week.
Bratley said she believes Improbable Players really reach students. She has files full of letters from students saying so.
“I think we are an influence,” Bratley said. “We plant a seed. I hope we send them to get help if they need it.”