Addressing Addiction Through Theatre With Lynn Bratley
Lynn Bratley is the founder of the Improbable Players, a Boston & New York based theatre company dedicated to the prevention and education of addiction. The actors; recovering addicts, the content; a dramatized version of the actors’ own experience with alcohol or drug addiction and their path to recovery. Recently retired, Lynn maintained her leadership in the company for 33 years after her own story of addiction drove her to begin the Improbable Players to support and educate the community. Lynn took some time with TheatreArtLife to give us an insight into her work of passion.
What prompted you to begin the Improbable Players and how did you start the company? How did you conceive of addressing addiction through theatre?
I loved to act in plays in my hometown children’s theater and my involvement in theater continued through school and a drama major at the university. After I graduated I acted and taught creative dramatic with several children’s theater companies, and toured to schools with a one-woman educational multi-media presentation about the arts. At the same time during this last job, I was a mom hiding her drinking in the closet. Really, a closet. I reluctantly got sober by attending recovery meetings which turned out to be the best thing I have ever done for myself and the turning point by which everything in my life is measured. That was 1982. If you have ever been to one of these meetings, you know that you are laughing with the speaker, crying with them, hanging on every word, hanging on every twist and turn – and waiting to hear how the story will end, celebrating their recovery.
This is storytelling at its best, and since I am a theater artist, I visualized each story as a scene in a play and thought of staging them. I met others who liked my idea and who thought that acting out real stories for young people would be an effective way to reach them with a prevention message. Our goal was to tell a good story through theater, be engaging, funny, and above all authentic and honest. We wanted our audience to laugh through their tears, hear our real stories, and consider the possibility that life could be awesome without a drink or a drug. Or if they were already in trouble – or their family was – there were many ways to get help. We always wanted them to know that they didn’t have to do any of it alone and that asking for help was the most important part.
I enrolled at Tufts University during the early years of Improbable Players and earned a Masters Degree in Theater Education in 1986. Many years later I joined the American Alliance for Theater & Education (AATE) and learned that there is such a thing as “Applied Theater”. I thought I had invented it.
Tell us about what people thought of your idea, how it worked for the first couple of years, what were the hurdles you needed to overcome.
The first year we found seven schools to agree to bring in our program, and it grew from there. I charged them $250.00 – $50 for each actor and $50 for paper and stamps. The office in my bedroom had a desk, typewriter, phone, file cabinet and phone book to find addresses of schools for a mailing list. After we completed each 45-minute program which consisted of the play, the actors’ real stories, and Q&A, I sent them a letter that said, “This is a thank you and a request. Thank you for having us perform at your school. Would you write a letter telling us why you and your students found the program valuable?” There were other questions that solicited comments which I used on the next brochure.
Now there are file cabinets filled with letters from grateful teachers and touching responses to questions we ask students to answer back in their classrooms after the end of each performance. I never get tired of their thoughts and ideas – for me, these are like solid gold, and the whole reason we do the plays. Go on the Players’ website and take a look – I’ve put a few up there.
Improbable Players has always received rave reviews and a loyal following of schools and conferences that ask for a return visit year after year. When the actors tell their real stories of addiction and recovery – in one minute – and answer questions from the audience, it is very moving and impactful. Each of the actors has a very tough story of drinking/drug use, conflict, personal disasters, losses that never can be regained. But they came through, were able to stop their addiction, and now stand before 500 middle school or high school students with a clear conscience, a life they are proud of, and a sense of purpose. And they look great. The actors embody the message of the plays and are the company’s greatest asset.
Small non-profits always struggle to make ends meet, to make enough to have an office and a staff who can make things happen, it’s always a challenge. Somehow Improbable Players has kept going for 33 years with sales, grants and individual donations, and I believe with the new management team of actors who have a passion for the Players – and who are the next generation – it will continue and thrive.
An early challenge that continued for many years was that the actors – although proud of their performances and the Players’ mission, did not want to publicly broadcast the fact that they were in recovery, fearing stigma. Fortunately, in a new age of acceptance and openness about the issue, this has changed. In fact, with some of them, recognition of their work as Improbable Players has served to open doors for them and provide a respect that surprises even them.
This may be a difficult question to answer, but given all the people who have come through your company, what do you see as the main causes of addiction, be that hereditary or environmental and do you believe that communities can address these issues in a better way?
I don’t know what causes addiction, but certainly, there are many people who would like to know the answer to that. For me, I think I inherited the tendency – I saw similar traits in my parents and in all three of my siblings. Others in the troupe were the only ones in their families who drank or took drugs. Some started as kids, others, like me, didn’t start drinking until later in life.
In a way for the Players, it doesn’t matter – there it is, and so – now what?
Our decision from the first play was to be open and honest about what an alcoholic and a drug addict looks like (us) and we told our real stories, unashamedly.
It was and still is, a surprise for the audience that the Players are so open about their lives. While the Anonymous programs are very, very important, the word anonymous used to keep addiction and recovery hidden from view. And even though those in the recovery programs were happy about their own lives, to the public, not talking about it outside the halls perpetuated the idea that this part of their life was a shameful secret best hid in the closet. Fortunately, that is changing.
Because of research being done, because of organizations like Faces & Voices of Recovery, and the changing language that eliminates negative terms (alcoholic/addict), because of recovery advocacy organizations and programs like Improbable Players, there is a greater awareness of addiction being a sickness or a disease – and not “willful misconduct”. Now when I speak in public, I say, “My name is Lynn and I am a woman in long-term recovery”.
When schools and communities provide education that helps to erase the stigma, then more people whose lives have been affected by the harmful effects of drinking and drug use will not hesitate to seek help for themselves or for someone they love, instead of keeping these things secret.
What has been your most favourite Improbable Players performance and why?
Over the years, I have created and directed over fifteen new plays – and multiple new short scenes – with the company, always in response to a need for education around a particular aspect of drinking or other drug use: news reports about a recurring issue like drinking and driving, families and relationships, HIV/AIDS epidemic, domestic violence, educating judges to sentence offenders to treatment not jails, elderly drug abuse, changes in what drug is the current fashion with youth, the opioid epidemic. All but one of the plays are four-person productions, and ideally, all the actors know all the scripts, making this truly an ensemble company.
The play that is consistently the best seller and most performed is a play about a family that’s based on my own story. That story, which once seemed so ordinary to me – a story of closet drinking, nightly blackouts, and endless promises to quit – became the basis for the first play, still performed today: it tells a timeless story of the hope and reality of long-term recovery.
The “family scene” is short – only 20 minutes, but it has all of the classic elements – the progression of the disease and the family conflicts that surround the addict. That story is preceded by short, funny scenes that address stereotypes, the merry-go-round of addiction. The actors play multiple interesting and often humorous roles before the family scene, and that sets the audience up for this unexpected and powerful story. It just works. Every time.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to start their own theatre company?
Just do it! Have another way to make money at first because it probably won’t pay off right away.
You use people that have been in long-term recovery as your actors. How do you approach them to get involved? What is the process in taking them from recovered addict to actor onstage?
Improbable Players have often put ads in arts or non-profit job listing areas or through college employment services, but my guess would be that most of the actors have found out about the Players through the grapevine: a current or past actor suggests they call. Required for audition: one year clean and sober, available for early morning shows in schools, past experience acting helpful but not necessary, a car helpful but not necessary, they fit into the plays that the company is currently touring, and the ability to pass along what they have been freely given to help others by telling their stories.
Funding for a non-profit is always a lot of work, but yet you have such a noble cause, is there a regular grant that you receive? Do you have to work each year to maintain it?
Improbable Players work every year to earn or raise enough money to stay in business. But sometimes a windfall does come along: one year a beloved elderly board member passed away and left the company a modest bequest, or a foundation gives a multiple year grant. But mostly, the Players are pluggers and just keep working at it.
Given that Netflix and iPhones and YouTube have demanded the attention of the world today, do you think missions like the Improbable Players are a good way to keep theatre alive?
From day one people have asked me, “Why don’t you just make a video and sell it? It would be so much easier!” Well, maybe someday. The value of the live performance and interaction with the audience is important and key to the mission. Now that I am retired and a new management team is in place, who knows what fun ideas they will put in place. I know of one vision that might happen before the video idea is that the Players could start troupes in other geographic areas with local actors. Our actors would be the trainers and teach the scripts that have already been developed and have a proven track record of success with audiences. The business model will need to be developed.
How far and wide do the Improbable Players reach and are there other groups addressing this issue in the USA in the same manner that you know of?
Improbable Players have two troupes – one in Boston and the other in New York. Most performances have been on the East Coast, although the actors have traveled as far as San Antonio for a performance at a health conference.
You have devoted 33 years of your life to being the Artistic Director for the Improbable Players. What an amazing achievement. Tell us what you have learned from committing yourself to this mission for so long. What have others got out of the Improbable Players? What have you personally got out of your involvement?
The last stanza of this poem by Robert Frost describes what my intention has been. How lucky am I to be able to combine my two loves, recovery and theater – and to have been a mentor to so many young actors beginning their new lives as sober, creative beings?
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
I called an actor/staff meeting before I left to wrap up a few things, to say goodbye and thank you. I know that working with Improbable Players changes people’s lives – I know it’s changed mine. I’ve heard that a grateful heart will never drink (or take a drug) and I believe it.
As everyone was leaving, one of the actors passed me a note.
He wrote, “I can’t effectively put into words how much meeting you and joining IP has changed the trajectory of my life. My creative spirit has been awakened, the world feels open and inviting instead of terrifying, and I have an overall sense of pride and confidence in my life choices that I never thought possible. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your sobriety, your work, and your kindness.”
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