Someone murmurs that there’s “no choice but to be immersed,” as I enter the basement of the St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Allentown. I’m here tonight to see Allentown Public Theatre’s (APT’s) performance of Coming Clean, a show providing insight about the national opioid crisis. I’m surprised by the wide age range present at the event. More people shuffle in and take their seats in the large rectangle of folding chairs at the center of the room. There are about thirty of us in total. In the far row, tonight’s actors set up their own seats. Mingling audience members cease conversations once the four actors begin talking.
We start the night with standard introductions. Perhaps out of the ordinary for a theatrical event, I find the activity welcoming. Some audience members identify themselves by profession: educator, lawyer, social worker. Each of us explains why we decided to attend tonight’s show. Almost everyone mentions knowing someone who has been affected by the opioid crisis. This is the first indication of the event’s significance.
The Evening’s Activities
The first activity of the night is a based upon yes-or-no statements. One of the actors reads off statements from a binder, each having to do something with morals, drugs, safety, or some combination of the three. A sign hangs on either side of the room, one for each the affirmative and the negative. Imagining a line connecting the two, we’re invited to stand wherever on the spectrum between “yes” and “no” we feel appropriate for each statement. Some statements — like one about law enforcement — polarize the group. Others see a fairly even distribution of audience members along the midline. I’m surprised by some of the topics we’re asked to consider, like whether or not we trust our friends.
Considering this activity in retrospect, I’m impressed by the versatility it offers. In schools, the statements could be altered to focus on the social situations that might promote drug use. This activity can easily spark conversations that continue beyond the confines of the performance venue. I thought about some of the proposed topics in a different way once I saw how other participants reacted. Hearing others explain their stance on certain topics was also useful. Rather than promoting peer pressure by virtue of groupthink, the activity instead generated conversations aimed at understanding differing points of view.
Theatre as Teacher
For the final portion of the night, we were invited back to our seats. APT performed two different scenarios for the audience: one about a family dealing with a sibling in recovery and one about an overdose situation. Both short performances ended without conclusion. The performers then asked the audience to suggest changes that could have altered the given scenario. Some attendees offered advice about being more hands-on in situations involving drug use. Others noted that, in the case of possible overdoses, it’s never too early to call for help. Each volunteer was then offered the chance to put their idea(s) into action. The scene was replayed, this time with an audience member standing in for an actor. By posing the scenes as puzzles to be solved, we were required to think critically. The scenes performed that night did not have dire consequences if executed poorly; the real-life versions, though, can prove fatal. The aim of this activity, then, is to get people thinking about how they would react in a situation long before their actions could have serious implications.
Allentown Public Theatre’s Coming Clean offers a jumping-off point for attendees to talk about substance abuse. I have no doubt that students who see this show will be better equipped to handle potentially dangerous drug situations, should they arise. APT did a fabulous job of creating a warm environment for the audience and encouraging us to participate throughout the night. The group created a space in which we were free to laugh, talk, and try our hand at acting. Above all, we gained insight into one of our nation’s most pressing challenges.
For information about booking the show for your school or organization, visit APT online.
*Feature image of the night’s performers taken at the event. Photo credits: Ava Bertone.*