Theatre and Addiction // FK Alexander

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

Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care // Harry Clayton-Wright

Sex Education, Sobriety and Self Care

The all-consuming beast that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is over for another year and I’ve been asked by TSOTF to write about my experiences at the festival, particularly in relation to sobriety. As someone who is approaching four years sober, I’m very happy to be given the opportunity, alongside the wonderful FK Alexander, to write about this experience as it isn’t talked about enough. 

Having done a fair few Fringes - this was actually my sixth full run - as a blogger, a PR intern, a production assistant, and as a performer with my work in cabaret productions, I decided to throw my hat in the ring this year by including Sex Education, my debut autobiographical theatre show, in the programme. Self-produced and self-financed, I knew I’d learned enough over the years to be able to give it my best shot, which was handy as I also didn’t have the money to be able to pay anyone to help me produce this run anyway. Being based in Blackpool now, a big part of the reason I moved back home with my mum at the start of the year was to be able to afford to do the Fringe. As has been widely discussed, the costs of presenting a show in Edinburgh have indeed risen over the years. But as an international arts marketplace it felt important to be there. I felt like I had a piece of work that needed to be seen, was ready to be booked, and that the time was right to have this conversation with audiences. I also thought people would enjoy the show. I was delighted to be accepted into the Summerhall programme - my first choice in terms of venue - where I knew the show would be safe and looked after. Positioning for your work is so important in the context of the Edinburgh Fringe and complete honesty, I’m very afraid of drunk patrons around this work. I managed to escape relatively unscathed in a festival that sells A LOT of drinks. 

This was my second sober Fringe but my first with all of the responsibilities of presenting my first ever piece of solo work in the largest arts festival in the world, and I knew in advance that two things would be very important: accommodation and self-care. The first was actually sorted through Instagram. With the experience of Fringes gone by having stayed on a camp bed in a living room and tricky accommodation previously, I knew I wanted to stay with a local, in their home and not some dodgy cupboard a landlord was charging through the teeth to use, with no hot water and party flatmates that would make me feel miserable. A friend put a callout on Instagram in January and a lovely couple (Doug and Mark with their incredible cat Trev) got in contact. AirBnB superhosts (their place is beautiful) we spoke on the phone and I put a deposit down the next day. We actually met in March when I went up to do some work and had a WhatsApp group going for months before the festival. I can now thank Past Harry for the foresight in knowing how useful this would be to my mental health during the run. Sex Educationis an incredibly honest and exposing piece of work and having a lovely, chilled place to go home to after the show each night was a gift. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m happiest in the bath. I don’t want to think about the risk it’d put me in to not have had this in place and am lucky to be able to know what is best for me and to have had this plan work accordingly. I worry about highly personal works and this festival very much. How can we look after people in an environment that isn’t regulated? I made some incredible friends in Doug and Mark who I look forward to hanging out with again. And in terms of expense, it was actually very reasonable, as I heard of people paying much more for a lot worse (mice, lack of hot water, parties).

The second thing on my list, self-care, was something that I also knew I had to budget in for this run. Having been to the Fringe many times before, I knew that one thing I could do for myself was to get a spa membership. This was the fourth year I’ve used the spa to look after my mind and body during the festival, and it was also the year I saw the most artists there, day after day. The hot tub became live art soup. I’m very grateful to the artists I got to spend time with, in the pool or sauna or steam room. Chats or hugs or sometimes just silence, it became an artist community centre and safe haven to cope with the pressures of the outside world. A place to listen and look after each other. It was also, for me, an important and rare sober space in the festival.

Sober spaces during the Edinburgh Fringe are few and far between, which is an often-overlooked conversation when it comes to what it means to be putting your work in this context. Consumption is everywhere and it’s a hard thing to avoid, so in all honestly I withdrew from a lot of the festival to be able to cope with the workload and responsibility. I wanted for this run to be the best it could possibly be - it cost so much to present the work in this context, I didn’t want to blow it or jeopardise it in any way by being shaken, tired or anxious. Having felt overwhelmed at the start of the run, I didn’t do any nights out. I never went to the artist bars. It was straight home after the show. I was almost always in bed before midnight to get a full eight hours sleep. At first, I felt like withdrawing meant I was missing out on networking and being seen, the fun times. Maybe I was, but I also knew that I’m at my best when I’ve slept and much more ready to seize the day and concentrate on the work. I’ve gotten the Fringe party animal days out of my system. I’ve been a mess in front of my peers and for me it doesn’t end well.

There’s a reason I’m sober and I’m on the other side of those days building different types of friendships and working relationships. I talk about sobriety online so it isn’t a shock for people. They don’t expect me to join in. Did I feel like a let-down for not going out to see enough shows? Yes, absolutely. Am I going to see these works when they inevitably go on tour? One hundred percent. And I’d just like to say, I don’t begrudge anyone needing escapism during a festival like this either. I understand, I’ve been there, but unfortunately I cannot be around it. It’s too hard for me. But the need for escapism during a festival like this and the over-accessibility of alcohol and lack of sober spaces is part of a bigger picture of the arts’ reliance on socialising over alcohol. A lack of care for those who put themselves through this month shouldn’t be on those who are leaving broken and poor, it’s important for the festival and our industry to be talking about this way more than we do (which doesn’t feel like often anyway). 

And this is just one topic on the list of other difficult conversations that we need to have about the Fringe. About accessibility, the overwhelming whiteness of the festival, representation, class and the regulations that needed to be put in place years ago to have avoided the escalation of costs. I’d definitely like to see more accessible case studies in the future, and more action to follow them up. I believe TSOTF are one of the only organisations paying people for their time and labour to feed back about the festival, and that’s something that should change too. Give us transparent examples of how Fringe festivals have gone for a variety of participants. From solo shows to big companies. From wins to losses. What can be traced back to having done the festival? What did their budgets look like? Tell us some honest tips and tricks and even hard realities.

Sex Education had a really lovely run at the festival which I’m thankful for. It looks like it will have a touring future and I am beyond delighted by this. I made some wonderful friends and I’m very grateful for the audiences who came and the lovely words about the show. But it’s important to also recognise my incredible team who supported me throughout.Simon, my amazing technician who has the best energy in the world. StorytellingPR who run the Summerhall press office and looked after me during the festival (letting me come in and work with them, drink coffee and even occasionally let me nap).  Summerhall for being incredible. The Marlborough in Brighton for commissioning the show, Shoreditch Town Hall for supporting the development and Arts Council England for funding it. David Sheppeard for producing the original run, who will work with me on building a tour. Brian Lobel for directing the show and the constant kindess and checking-in through the process. Leah Shelton, Duncan Jarvies, Rosie Powell, Kuchenga, Ophelia Bitz, Scott Coello, Greg Bailey and Sarah Ferrari. And of course, my lovely Mum. For her beautiful interview. For agreeing to be in the show she can never see. For letting me live at home this year to be able to afford to have the opportunity to try and advance my work. Their labour was put in to making Sex Education happen too, and an accounting of the experience should acknowledge their contribution.

I’m very happy to have survived another sober festival and a shoutout from my heart to anyone else who has achieved that too. Because it isn’t an easy thing to navigate.

You are incredible.

-       Harry Clayton-Wright 

Prognosis 1: Accessing the Fringe - Tian Glasgow

In observing the Edinburgh Fringe 2017, it’s communities, its vibrancy, and its impact on the arts scene worldwide I was continually asking myself the question ‘why come here?’ As a theatre director and producer, I was fascinated by the challenge of bringing a play to the world’s most intense playground, and I wanted to see the Fringe first, gauge the terrain and understand how to succeed. It took me a month of investigating to understand that the very idea of success at the Fringe is a personal one, and can be different even within teams working on the same piece of art. Whilst many artists and technicians seek to enjoy the experience, their main hope and expectation is just to survive it, like a mountain to be climbed or a wilderness to be crossed.

If you have an incredibly important thing to say through your art should you have to build an incredible financial and emotional resilience to take part in the Fringe? Or should wellbeing and access be placed firmly at the heart of a festival that has grown into a Wild West? Our TSOTF hosted Producer Gatherings raised many points to this effect. Taking on-board a relatively large financial risk is the first millstone loaded on to the producer and artistic team’s mental health. Money is outlaid to create a platform where your art can be seen by all those reviewers and programmers who are ‘unable’ to attend your show, a perennial problem if your work is made outside London’s zones one or two. The second level of risk comes from reviewers or programmers still not attending even in Edinburgh, and the related anxiety that comes from a negative response. Thirdly is the emotional risk from the physical challenge of the flyering, performing and networking cycle, and the fact that personal and team wellbeing is pencilled with a question mark at the bottom of a long production to-do list. As we found at the TSOTF Tickets to My Trauma events, those that make up the temporary artistic community at the Fringe are uniquely positioned to understand each other’s issues and problems and give advice and support. But whilst this is true in many cases, the true reality of community at the Fringe is that the ability for each artist to listen to each other’s troubles is severely limited.

To speak about access brings the need to define it, alongside the standard definition of improving accessibility for those with physical disabilities, hearing/sight impairment or mental health challenges. A significant amount of work could still be put into making the Fringe and Edinburgh city itself more accessible in this way, but there is a broader definition that should also be addressed. There is a question of the access to create at and attend the Fringe without being part of what is actually quite a slender demographic - a privileged position of having the resources to pay the venue and accommodation, a willing (usually unpaid) team, and a strong mental and emotional robustness.

The Fringe Society has begun making real steps into this terrain, ones that will eventually have to involve everyone from producers and artists to venues and the council. BSL and surtitled performances can be costly and logistically difficult but with enough lead-in time and pre-thought out infrastructure it is very possible. Edinburgh Council must consider in every way how a historic city can be physically accessible considering disability, age and crowd management. That includes disseminating this information far and wide, not just to those who will request it but to those who will relay this information. It will require producers to challenge venues to aid them in considering important wheelchair space, BSL show dates, gender-neutral toilets, quiet spaces for members of their cast or audience members that require it. A financial commitment from curating and commercial venues to consider more work from teams that have access requirements and then challenge themselves to learn to support those teams properly. A shuttle and/or buddy system for those who would rather be accommodated further away but would like to perform centrally. These are small steps, but remembering to ask these questions even while stressed and creating art will all have a knock-on effect and open the door to more audiences.

In relation to the big question of emotional access and wellbeing, everyone must be honest with themselves about what they can handle. Producers, have proper conversations with your entire team and with yourself about what you need, even if you don’t necessarily have the budget to provide all (or any) of this provision. Engaging in a conversation with an actor that has to endure emotional abuse as a part of the script regarding how they plan to decompress, and then facilitating that routine is useful in itself. Check in on these bespoke wellbeing plans throughout the month, and maintain your own.

Related Diagnoses: Bechdel Testing Life, Out, Polyphony, Sometimes I Adult

Live Encounters: Julene and Pauline,  Kate and Lucy