Theatre and Addiction
This year in Edinburgh, working for Total Theatre as an awards assessor, I saw around 45 shows, and listened to the 23 other assessors discuss more than 400. We considered many issues that the work and the artists brought up. They were necessary, vital and important issues, ones of class, race, disability, feminism, patriarchy, recourse, visibility and access. But there was one more issue that I had my eye and ears on, one that no one else in the group mentioned. One that, were it not for my own access needs, I might not be aware of either. Alcohol and drugs. Of course, they are the same thing really (legal definitions notwithstanding).
The Edinburgh Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, and it has many aspects to it that are deeply problematic. One is that performing here is a job with, for many, few or even zero days off, and the vast majority of temporary workplaces are places that sell and promote alcohol. The separate issue of branding and sponsorship aside, one thing that leaped out at me this year was the amount of performances that either gave audiences drinks, consumed drink on stage, made jokes about drink, mentioned drinking and/or alcoholism as an aside, or, even worse, as a joke.
The number of drug-related deaths in Scotland soared to 1,187 in 2018, according to official statistics. It means there were more drug-related deaths in Scotland last year than the 1,136 alcohol-specific deaths. And the country's drug death rate is now nearly three times that of the UK as a whole, higher than that reported for any other EU country. A few thousand people dead from drugs and alcohol. The butterfly effect of personal and societal devastation beyond those numbers is incalculable. I include these statistics for context - the report about Scotland’s drugs deaths came out shortly before the Fringe started.
Of course, some shows were pretty clear what they were doing - five free drinks as part of the show, Shakespeare while drunk, a one woman play about a homeless alcoholic – but these types of shows don’t sit within the world of contemporary performance practice that I work in. With all the awareness that this part of the arts encourages, knowledge for each other and with the wider world, there is still a gap. We have content warnings, allergy advice, trigger warnings, and other access needs addressed or met. I’d argue that one glaring omission is in relation to drugs and alcohol.
Imagine you are in early sobriety, a few days, or weeks, or months. Edinburgh is fast paced, hectic and stressful, as an audience member or as a worker. You are sitting on your hands trying not to drink. You go to a show and the performer offers everyone a drink - maybe as a toast or maybe as group activity. You are holding that cup. You are holding a loaded gun. It is not simply a wee dram or a mouth full of lager to you. Others drink it down with impunity, laughing. You sweat. You smell it. You drink it. And then you can’t hear another word out of that artist’s mouth because all you can think about is how to get the next one, maybe without your friend or partner seeing. Can you 'go get cigarettes’ or ‘make a phone call' and hoof round to the corner shop? Telling yourself you’ll only buy one, but you come out with a half-bottle of vodka. It might look like a ‘choice’ but please understand – it does not feel, physically or mentally, like a choice. It feels more like a compulsion, a mental obsession, cloaked in shame and secrecy and fear. It’s complicated. Really fucking complicated.
Why then, do we still have an arts festival with an ever-growing community of performance practitioners who are engaged in forward-thinking, challenging and generous work, who aren’t holding addiction or issues around substances up as an important part of the conversation? We have access needs starting to be acknowledged (and sometimes even met) for people using wheelchairs, those who are hard of hearing or visually impaired, or have epilepsy, autism, anxiety or depression. And crucially we have these experiences and realities being seen and heard and shared through the work.
There was a moment in a show that I saw that was both very hard to hear and yet very illuminating. An artist offered an audience member a drink from a selection. When the artist said that they were having a wine, the audience member said 'Oh go on yeah, I’ll have one too’ and switched after previously taking a juice. It was 11am on a Sunday and everyone laughed. A cheeky vino in a show on a Sunday morning, nothing wrong with that. And there isn’t for most, it’s a naughty treat on an unusual occasion. It wasn’t meant in malice or probably even noticed by anybody by else, but when the artist then said ‘I’m glad you’re joining me. I would have respected your choice not to but it’s so much nicer for me that you’re having a drink!’, it was a true moment of realisation for me.
Side note - I drank or used drugs very often at 11am or earlier and not once was I met with applause. I was once met with a police officer. Sometimes by a P45, sometimes by slammed doors, by A&E admissions or more than once by a softly spoken medical professional who advised me it was time for a 72-hour nap. I also had a fairly long holiday in an acute psychiatric ward.
I know people respect my choice. I know they will get me a soft drink when they go to the bar for their 'real' drink. I know that I can choose to stay in a pub or not. But I also know that it’s just nicer for everyone else when we all join in, and that is what stings. If my friends come round to my home, they know not to bring drinks. If I worked in any number of other workplaces - a school, a hospital, driving a bus - people aren’t allowed to drink. But my workplace this August, and before when I have shown my own work, is the Edinburgh Fringe (as well as all other theatres, festivals, clubs or events). People have come to see my work having had a drink, holding a drink, full-blown drunk and/or high. Meetings happen in pubs and bars, receptions serve champagne at breakfast and commissions are made over bottles of wine. Not only is this normalised at the Fringe, it is encouraged. And I find this exhausting, like the others I have spoken to who are either alcoholics in recovery or people who don’t drink for other reasons. And I am not alone. I know a number of people who really struggle at the Fringe, and in theatre in general, to be both addict and audience, alcoholic and artist. It is alienating, and at its worst it is really fucking dangerous.
I know a lot of people who have died from addiction. I know a lot more who have suffered from an illness that remains cloaked in stigma, moral judgement and misunderstanding. Which I understand – it is near impossible to love someone even if you know they are very sick, when the behaviours that accompany that illness are so often cruel, selfish, or exhausting. It is hard to acknowledge a drinking problem in yourself. No one wants this.
For me it was pretty fucking clear for a long, long, time. Not everyone needs to or will spend as long as I did trying to skirt round the problem and not face it. It is tricky - you are either allergic to nuts or you aren’t. You are epileptic or you aren’t. But you might have a problem with your drinking and or drug use and not know. You might be in denial. You might be forced to think about your own substance use when someone nearby says ‘I am clean and sober’. You might need to consider your own behaviours and your own thoughts. What is hard to watch, what I hope we as artists can help address, is the environments we uphold that contribute to individuals feeling a sense of shame around this issue. The feeling of hiding who you are because the environments seem to say, ‘but everyone else is doing it!’.
I am not an expert, but I wish to offer a couple of ideas. How about you hold your networking event or delegate meal in a place without a bar? Have your show team meeting in a flat or café. In your next festival panel or round table, bring up the issue. If you don’t have an issue with alcohol then you won’t miss it. If you feel like you are missing something then maybe you can look at that and what that might mean to you. I know people who felt, through stigma and misunderstanding that they couldn’t say to an employer that they struggle with substances and in the end there was a harmful outcome.
I’m not asking everyone to stop having fun, or to not enjoy a drink during a long day during an intense roller-coaster of a month. I’m not saying anything like that. I’m talking about awareness. About an illness. About people’s safety and security. About access. Addicts are not 'over there'. We are everywhere! It affects anyone - regardless of class, gender, race, sexuality, physicality - addiction is an illness unlike many others. It is hard to spot and hard to admit and hard to deal with. I want theatre and art to understand this and I want to feel like I am welcome in the room. Why do you need to provide alcohol to an audience? For what purpose? What does that shared fluid bring that your performance needs? What laugh does it raise? We talk so much about access and holding space, and putting in place language, consideration and comforts for such a variety of experiences and needs. Let the next one be towards addiction and sobriety.
- FK Alexander