Playing a New Role—On Stage—Can Help People Stay In Recovery From Addiction

Aug 18, 2016
Originally published on August 10, 2016 10:30 am

At a small studio theater on the campus of the University of Indianapolis in June, it was standing room only for a performance of the original play, “Altered”,  an adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Lesli Butler played the role of Arachne, an expert weaver whose pride in her art had offended the goddess Athena.

“Without weaving I would not have found my identity, my life’s work,” recited Butler, “and to find one’s self in an art form is perfection.”

Butler, like six of the seven other actors on stage, is in recovery for her addiction—in her case, to alcohol.  The actors participated in the show as a form of therapy, and as part of a research study. 

Butler finds acting helps her focus:  “A part of recovery for me is to have purpose and structure in my daily life to keep me busy and engaged,” she says.

Decades ago acting was used widely in therapy as a way to change behavior but in recent years it’s taken a back seat.  Now one researcher in Indiana is reviving the idea that performing on stage can help people recover from addiction to alcohol and drugs. 

The play was produced by Sally Wasmuth, a researcher at the University Of Indianapolis School of Occupational Therapy who has been studying addiction for the past decade.  She thinks theater might help people in recovery because it gives people something to do—an occupation—to replace the consuming quality of their disease.

“I think a lot of times in drug addiction a lot of participation in meaningful activities goes by the wayside,” explains Wasmuth. “So this is kind of a jump start to having something you show up for.”

The participants committed to six weeks of rehearsals, three hours a day three times a week. The play includes roles from Greek and Roman myths and deals with themes of human struggle. Wasmuth says preparing for a play this rigorously can help battle addiction at a neurobiological level. 

“Chronic drug use really reinforces reward pathways in the brain and that doing things like executive tasks like memorization and anything that really involves a lot of attention, can really help reverse some of those pathways,” says Wasmuth.

To recruit actors Wasmuth partnered with an Indianapolis based, Fairbanks  Recovery Center. She’s staged plays before, her first two productions were with veterans in recovery. The results or her first small research study were encouraging.

“People have reported a change in their overall life structure and relationships.” Wasmuth says.

She details her findings in an article published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy. She showed that 86 percent of the participants in those plays were drug free for six weeks following the performance.  The vets also showed up for the program with an attendance rate of 91 percent.

Wasmuth’s research suggests theater could be a novel approach to recovery says Dean Babcock, an addiction specialist who leads Midtown Community Mental Health at Eskenazi Health in Indianapolis.

He says he’d like to try it with his patients. Developing accountability is valuable for people healing from drug and alcohol addiction. 

“Showing up regularly for rehearsals, where other people count on you to do a part that affects them, creates this sense of self-accountability,” says Babcock, “In many ways it’s how group therapy works, you have a beholdeness to the other members of the group.”

Babcock says seeing recovering addicts on stage as actors mastering a role can help break the stigma of addiction.

“Sometimes people view addiction as these are kind of scumbags and these are less than desirable, but what we know about addiction is affect anyone in all classes, all race, any socio-economic background.” Babcock said. “It is your neighbors, it is your family members.”

After a performance of “Altered” an enthusiastic audience applauded and participated in a Q & A with the actors. Wasmuth says this reaction also helps the healing by giving people a “feeling like people really do care and really support when you are trying to do something positive,” she says.

During the Q&A, Lesli Butler told the audience why this experience had been meaningful in her recovery. She said at first she was hesitant to go public as a recovering alcoholic, but…

“I came to this conclusion that alcoholics and addicts they live in a stigma and a lot of us feel a lot of shame for having this disease,” said Butler “I think projects like this are educating the population and I’m just glad I can be a part of it.”

Wasmuth is organizing another play with another group of people in recovery set to open next month as part of her continued research. Results of the research are due out early next year.   

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media.

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