Playwright Michael Gorman began writing about addiction shortly after his older brother, a commercial fisherman, died of a drug overdose.
That was almost 25 years ago.
Since then, the opioid epidemic has become progressively more destructive and deadly. Last year alone, more than 600 people died from drug overdoses in Maine, the highest annual total on record. Before 2014, the state had never lost more than 200 people in a year.
Meanwhile, Gorman continued to write. He has now completed a trilogy of plays on a subject that started out as personal but has grown into something universal.
“I think I wrote that first play in response to (my brother’s) death. It was my own way of dealing with that loss,” said Gorman, who splits his time between New York and central Maine. “But I kept tapping into that, adding to it and adapting it. I’m still working on other things, you know, but it always comes down to it.
His latest musical, adapted from this trilogy and entitled “The Ahab Inside Me – A High Seas Blues Opera”, will be on stage at the Colonial Theater in Augusta for three days this weekend, which coincides with the beginning of the month of the national revival.
The show is loosely based on Herman Melville’s classic “Moby-Dick,” with Captain Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the titular whale that grabbed his leg serving as a metaphor for addiction. As he has done in previous shows, Gorman cast people who are recovering and recently released from prison.
But Gorman isn’t just playing his game and moving on. He has teamed up with political leaders and advocates to organize a pair of roundtables on the ongoing and seemingly unsolvable crisis in the hope that it could help save lives.
“I haven’t necessarily always viewed my plays as having an advocacy angle. I wanted them to be just games and judged on that merit,” he said. “But the pull was so strong. It seemed like it was happening in my life for a reason.
The production received a grant from the Maine Arts Commission, which will also participate in one of the roundtables.
“There is a need, I think, for the arts in general to recognize that the most impactful works are those that touch us in ways we understand and can see,” said David Greenham, director of the commission. “That’s kind of where the power of art lies. It helps us to talk about the challenges we face.
Yet when Gorman was looking for a place to stage his play, he said he wasn’t necessarily welcome. A musical about addiction is a tough sell.
The Colonial Theater, about a mile from the State House, where lawmakers and political leaders have struggled to effectively tackle the crisis, didn’t hold back.
“Maybe our perspective is different, but I think we feel a certain social responsibility,” said Richard Parkhurst, an Augusta business owner and one of the theater’s board members. . “They have to play somewhere and have opportunities. This is what the Colonial should be.
BREAK THE STIGMA
Kevin Gorman had just been released from prison and was returning to work as a commercial fisherman in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
He stopped at a house to buy heroin, but ignored the low tolerance he had built while incarcerated. He died on October 13, 1998.
At that time, policymakers had not declared a drug crisis. Prescription opioids had only recently begun to flood the market. Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic that shows up in so many overdoses today, has not been found outside of hospitals.
Still, Michael Gorman said his brother’s death offered a first glimpse of drug policy failures that persist today. He only engaged in criminal behavior to serve his addiction. He was never treated behind bars. No service was offered to him upon his release.
Gorman had already started writing plays by then, making his debut in 1994 at the Off-Broadway LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club in New York, where he has since directed more than a dozen productions and is currently the playwright. in theater residency.
His brother’s death provided another kind of artistic inspiration.
The first play in his addiction trilogy, “Ultralight,” premiered at LaMaMa in 2000. He recalls meeting viewers from a nearby men’s shelter and the recovery community. He later took this piece to Gloucester, the tough fishing community where his late brother worked, and met others facing the same struggles as his brother.
And he continued to write.
“This piece – ‘The Ahab Inside Me’ – grew out of the trilogy, but I continued to exploit and adapt it,” he said. “It’s almost like jazz.”
Along the way, Gorman also founded The Forty Hour Club, a Rockland-based theater production company that combines performing arts with community involvement. A builder and renovator by trade, Gorman manages to give his productions an authentic, collaborative feel that marries with the often harrowing subject matter.
Bruce Noddin, who founded the Maine Prisoner Re-entry Network to better help recovering people coming out of prison, saw Gorman and others perform a staged reading of one of his plays a few years ago.
“I was sitting with people who knew nothing about drug addiction, and when we got to the climax, we were all in tears,” he said. “I think Mike’s shows help me with this thing that I’ve been trying to tell people for a number of years. We can’t have events where we hit people over the head. It doesn’t work. But if we can have events where people come in and they don’t really know what’s going on, but they come out with an entirely different perspective, that’s how the stigma is broken.
Noddin promoted the latest production to members of the community he serves.
He said the opioid crisis had come to the point where people were almost resigned to seeing a number of deaths. Any opportunity to bring conversations to people, even in non-traditional ways, is good.
“I’m a recovering person,” he said. “If we can just get more people down this path before they get lost. I see him every day.
SEE THE INVISIBLE
Gorman said he’s seen the stigma of substance use diminish since his brother’s death.
But there is still a long way to go.
His experience trying to find a place to perform “The Ahab Inside Me” was a good reminder.
“So many theaters wouldn’t put that on their stage,” he said.
On some level, that’s the downside of running a production company that doesn’t have a home theater.
Greenham, with the Maine Arts Commission, said there are performing arts venues — and audiences, for that matter — who want a more traditional production and experience. Many people come to the theater to escape reality and feel good.
“For us, it’s really about making sure that the project that someone has put together has an approach that reflects the quality of the artistry and craftsmanship behind it, but we also look at the potential for impact on the community,” he said. “Obviously they have a clear sense of the community they’re talking about.”
Greenham said there was definitely a risk in curating plays around difficult topics, especially ones that might hit close to home.
“But there’s a bigger risk in ignoring it,” he said. “When people really sit down on a topic and let it in, the risk is mitigated and the opportunity for real conversation exists. We’ve seen that.
For Gorman, he wants this conversation to be about harm reduction. He said the increased availability of the anti-overdose drug Narcan has been monumental. The dead cannot recover, after all.
But his work also explores the idea of invisibility – the idea that there is an entire population that exists outside the lens of much of society. People with substance use disorders often belong to this group. So do people who are imprisoned.
Part of his production highlights it. Captain Ahab’s crew, Fedallah and the Ghosts, represent the invisible and serve as the chorus of the musical. Gorman and his team cast non-actors and members of the recovery community in these roles.
Parkhurst, the local business owner and theater board member, said he’s lucky no one in his family has been lost to addiction, but he’s seen good things. friends lose children.
“It’s a real tragedy,” he said. “We’re missing something in life that’s fulfilling enough that we don’t turn to things like this to escape.”
“I really think with the production they’re putting in place, if we get two people to respond positively and make changes, that’s a win.”
Gorman said he understood why some theaters wouldn’t host his play, and he also understood if certain audiences might be turned off.
“Sometimes it’s not always the things people want to see, but what they need to see,” he said. “And there’s real beauty in that.”