There was a guy called Andrew, from Ballymun, due into RADE for an assessment appointment. His mate John, who was already in the programme, had told Andrew about the project. Andrew had phoned our office five minutes before 2 pm to say he was running late and he was lost. “Do you know Patrick’s Cathedral? No? Do you know Clanbrassil Street? No? Do you know Kevin’s Street, no? Kevin’s Street Garda station? Yes? Great, John will meet you at the gates of the station and bring you over to RADE.”
It was 3 pm before they returned. I had given up on them by this point, but they had a good excuse. A garda coming off duty had spotted Andrew at the gates to the station scratching his arse and though most of us would consider the gates of a Garda Station the most inappropriate place to stop and ram a fistful of drugs up our holes, Andrew had been taken into the station, told to bend over and drop his trousers and the long arm of the law, dressed in blue rubber gloves went about its business. “Yeah, right” had been the Garda’s response when Andrew had pleaded that he would be late for his job interview for a theatre group.
Andrew was affected by some form of opiate substance when he arrived into RADE that day, his scratching of himself that the garda had witnessed is another tell-tale symptom of drug use. He was asked to come back for a second interview on a later date, but he never showed. A short while later John told me that Andrew had died. He had thrown himself off the balcony of one of the Ballymun towers.
People often say when they present for assessment in the Recovery through Art, Drama and Education programme, that they want to build their confidence and self-esteem or that they want to have something to do, that they’re fed up doing nothing all day. The paradox for them and for RADE is that they often rely on their familiar confidence builder, opiates or valium, to help them through the anxiety of a job interview. Our strategy is usually to ask them to return for a second interview when they are not affected. The RADE project accepts that participants take drugs. The rule on the programme, is that they are not allowed present affected during work hours: what they do in their own time is their business. This policy is in line with what would be expected in any job, be it for a judge, bishop, police or politician, they would be expected to keep their indulgence in their drink ordrug of choice outside their work hours. A secondary benefit and net result of RADE’s non didactic approach is an overall reduction in drug use and drug harm for those engaging in our service. Our focus is towards exposing people to alternative buzzes. The buzz off creativity. The buzz that comes from performing and being lifted by the energy of the audience. That high you get after delivering a performance that gets peopleto their feet, that buzz that later sees you sit at home, just being with yourself, a pleasant tingle of satisfactionin your gut.
From 10 to 2, five days a week, workshops in RADE consist of either art, drama, creative writing, Tai Chi or drug relapse prevention. As I write this piece Paula Meehan has delivered her fourth and final Creative Writing class in her role as Ireland’s Professor of Poetry. For the first hour we practiced Tai Chi, as we have done at the start of every day for the past ten years. We don’t speak during this class, instead we move our bodies slowly, carefully and mindfully. We finish the season with a short period of meditation and stillness. After a quick smoke break, we read out our homework from Paula’s last class: An exercise in Dadaism, collaging words from two poems we’d been given to cut up and randomly put backtogether. Paula then talks us through a poem by Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish, and another from Padraig Pearse. Both these poems are about mothers and the group is assigned the task ofwriting a poem through the voice of their own mother.
The group work as an ensemble and participation in all workshops is expected. Amazingly most of our catchment group seem to be up for performing and willing to try their hand at acting. In fact, it is quite rare that anyone feels shy about taking to the boards. For the few who are reluctant, there is plenty to do backstage and opportunity to express themselves through writing, painting, and sculpture. It’s important to do more than simply whoosh people up on stage and confront their confidence. Instead we seek to capitalize on their individual turn of phrase, accent and authentic Dublin character. We focus on stagecraft and delivery, emphasising diction, projecting voice, and commitment to the illusion we are creating.
Society hangs a lot of negative concepts and opinions on people who have or have had problems with drugs. I imagine that the salacious stories in the press, exposés of celebrities on their way down, and underworld criminality, have impacted on our impression of the people we associate with drug use. As a result of the public nature of RADE, by being members of our project our participants are declaring their drug problem. For this reason I feel obligated to declare my hand. There have to be a lot of people under 65 today who took illegal drugs at some time in their lives. But it’s a taboo subject. We keep it to ourselves; we’re ashamed of our drug-taking past, or maybe we don’t want to encourage younger generations.
In retrospect now I realise that I don’t like coming out about my previous drug use. I’ve moved on and I know that drug users are often saddled with this one dimension of their past. At the end of the 70’s after almost a decade of getting high on acid and hash, I started taking the powder drugs. I did not expect to get addicted to heroin. I had first-hand knowledge of the misinformation that had been put aboutin the media about the addictive nature and many other exaggerated claims about LSD and marijuana. I believed that the newspapers invented the same scare stories about heroin. It took at least a year before I realised I was strung out on smack and I needed it every day.
Although I had done countless cold turkeys, it wasn’t till I found my way into working in theatre that I was able to put a distance between my constant relapses. Like Andrew from Ballymun, I was in despair and in a very dark and hopeless stage of my life. The hippie dream was over and I had no qualifications having left school before Junior Cert and I could see no future. My luck changed when I was invited by Peter Sheridan to join in an experimental community theatre company, City Workshop. I particularly found my voice writing with the group. I co-wrote with Peter the first of our trilogy of plays The Kips, The Digs, The Village and a year later I wrote A Hape A’ Junk, the final play in the trilogy. This final play told the story of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Ireland against the backdrop of what became known as the heroin epidemic of the 80’s. Writing the play was a sort of purging of my drug dependence. I performed in the three plays, which toured the country and travelled to the Royal Court Theatre in London. Finding a place in society, a job, something to do, was the platform for me to let go of drugs.
One of the many unique aspects of the City Workshop theatre company was that the company evolved from a community context and all of the actors were new to theatre performance. I knew that this could be replicated among drug users when I started the RADE project. I’d had a very successful trial run in the 90s, putting on theatre shows with clients from the Merchants Quay Project and in 2004, I needed a job. The acting jobs that I had done in theatre were too irregular to make a living from and I couldn’t find the motivation to write a theatre play in the isolation of my ivory tower. I knew that bringing people on a similar journey that I had experienced would allow for a tremendous amount of learning and progression in their lives. The thing about theatre and art-making is that people don’t need degrees to practice these activities.
Many of the people who come to RADE have experiences that help in becoming an actor. The raw exposure of life on the street and closeness to the underworld can be an excellent university for many elements of stagecraft, improvising, and character study.
After ten years I still love getting up for work every day. I feel greatly privileged to be doing the job I do. I get to practice in the arts and theatre with incredibly brave people and I get to be part of a small organisation that demonstrates so profoundly that people who have been outcast can find a way to make apositive contribution to their families, communities, and to the wider society.