Drug Story Theater: Treatment for Both Audience and Actors

Joan Goodchild

When an actor takes the stage, they have the power to make an audience laugh, cry, feel angry, or experience other emotions through watching the performance. Live theater has the ability to be transformative, jarring, healing and therapeutic. And for the actors who are part of Drug Story Theater, they, too, are benefitting from putting on the production. That’s because the actors are all recovering drug and alcohol addicts who are bringing their story to stages at schools around Massachusetts as part of their treatment plan.

“After the performance, I remind the students watching how they have helped my kids with their treatment,” said Dr. Joseph Shrand, an Instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry for High Point Treatment Centers in Southern Massachusetts. “Then I remind them that that’s peer pressure in a really positive way.”

Founded by Shrand in 2014, Drug Story Theater teaches improvisational theater to teenagers as part of their recovery from addiction. Recovering patients write and perform in their own shows about the seduction of drugs and alcohol and how they became hooked. Performances take place at middle and high schools for student audiences around the state. A question and answer session is held after the performance. The aim is to educate kids about neuroscience and how addiction takes hold of the brain.

“I believe because the brain is the brain, that DST can be replicated through Michigan, Massachusetts or Morocco,” said Shrand. “The goal is that this becomes an international model of treatment and prevention. Using neuroscience, we explain to kids that ‘your brain is so cool. Why would you want to give it up to drugs?’”

Through the program and its performances, the treatment of one becomes treatment of many, which is DST’s slogan. The actors who are enrolled and who put on the performances find the feedback from audiences incredibly rewarding, he said, and often stay in the program for multiple years as part of their sobriety.

“It occurred to me we could begin using the pleasure of theater,” said Shrand in explaining his inspiration for the program. “There’s nothing like giving an audience something and getting that rush of applause. The idea was to create a program in which a kid begins to feel, and is reminded of their value so much that they prefer that over drugs and alcohol.”

Shrand, who is also the medical director at CASTLE, a short-term treatment center in Brockton for adolescents, would know about the rush of acting. He had his own experience in theater as a child when he starred in the Emmy-award winning PBS children’s show Zoom. His mother was an actress and his father was a pediatrician, he noted, so this current phase of his career only makes sense.

Since its founding, DST has performed for more than 20,000 students across the Commonwealth. Patients rehearse at Massasoit Community College over the course of 20 weeks to develop new shows. Now growing beyond its roots in southeastern Massachusetts, the program recently partnered with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, which has given DST $250,000 over two years to expand. Shrand hopes to provide many more Massachusetts schools with a DST performance this coming year.

“Everyone wants to feel value. Every time we can remind people of their value, we increase their value,” he said.

Inquiries about bringing DST to local schools can be made on the group’s Facebook page. They also have a website at drugstorytheater.org.