A group of North Shore writers and youth advocates are joining forces to use theater to help deal with the state's opioid epidemic.
"Stories of Substance," a play that premiered in Salem this week at the North Shore YMCA, is the result of a year-and-a-half-long collaboration and uses real stories of young people struggling with addiction.
The community members behind the production hope local middle schools will stage the play in the fall. It follows two teenagers' paths into addiction using composites of true stories.
The writers involved are in a writing group that meets at the Salem Athenaeum. They had been talking about the opioid epidemic and realized that all of them knew at least one person who was affected. So they reached out to an alternative high school and recorded interviews with students in recovery, and met with social workers and police officers.
Initially the group thought the play would be for eighth graders, but Matthew Phillion, the lead writer of the play, says the students they worked with suggested otherwise.
"We have eighth and ninth grade kids and they said, 'You might be too late, you might want to get there at sixth grade,' " Phillion said. "We were like, that's good, helpful information to know, but oh my god. It was terrifying to realize that we were overshooting our mark a bit by aiming for eighth grade. But we decided, OK, we'll peel it back to make it accessible for kids who are younger."
The writers then had young people in the YMCA's theater program read the first drafts of the play and help revise the language so it sounded authentic. Writer Anne Lucas says that part of the process surprised her.
"The way kids who are deep, deep in this, the way they talk — they say horrible things with no feeling whatsoever," Lucas said. "That deadpan is more gut wrenching and horrific than if they were sobbing. Clearly in the case of some of these people they've seen so much horror they can no longer attach it to their own emotional selves. Whereas the children, the theater kids, they seem to show more affective emotion. They're at the place we want to stop people."
The subject matter is dark, but the play's message is one of hope. Director Damon Krometis says there's also a message for kids who are already using drugs about how to stop.
"The best way is to open up and to ask for help, to find the people you can have this conversation with. The first step really is to start talking about it, that silence is the most deadly thing," Krometis said.
Schools that stage the play will cast it with their own students to make the message feel more personal for students, according to Brunonia Barry, another writer who worked on the play.
"Kids don't really know what they're getting into until they're deep in it. So if you can give them an idea of how things can progress and how quickly and irrevocably this can happen — with a dramatic performance — that makes a difference," Barry said.
Kids portraying the real stories of other kids was a powerful message for 16-year-old Katerine Weymouth from Wilmington. She watched the premiere in Salem this week.
"A lot of people are telling us the message — they show the physical effects but I don't think they show as much the emotional effects of what happens to the teens and everyone who gets addicted," Weymouth said. "I haven't seen it from that point of view. So I thought it was really cool to see it in a different light."
The group hopes middle schools around Essex County will start staging the play in the fall.