High Anxiety

A sobering experience for local teens.

Some kids who use drugs or booze are just passing through a stage of life, but a few gutsy teens with serious substance-abuse problems are putting their troubles on the stage.

They're in Coming To, a program of Compass Health Care. Every year, a handful of teens overcoming their addictions join Coming To, and through a long series of workshops and rehearsals they devise an anti-drug stage production that plays mainly to junior- and high-school audiences, some of them antagonistic.

Last month, when this year's three-member troupe played to freshmen and sophomores at Cholla High School, the show had barely started when a kid in the audience bellowed, "Fuck you!"

Cholla, said one of the program administrators, is the toughest audience in town.

The following day, the crowd of 500 juniors and seniors was less overtly hostile. First Coming To's founding artistic director, Tryshe Dhevney, introduced the show with the statement, "I'm an alcoholic; I have a progressive, fatal disease," but noted that she's been clean and sober for 21 years. Then 18-year-old Abby Goff strode onto the stage strewn with brightly painted boxes and ladders and made some introductory remarks.

Two hecklers in the audience interrupted her, praising the thrill of getting high to the general approval of the audience. But these hecklers turned out to be cast members Matt Hawe and Nicole Rodieck, both 17, who soon joined Goff on stage. Constantly interacting with each other, they told their personal stories (all were boozing by the time they were 8, then graduated to other substances).

There followed a series of skits, drawn pretty much from the young actors' lives. Hawe pressured Goff to party hearty ("Leave her alone!" shouted somebody in the audience; "She said no!"). Hawe faced jail for getting into dangerous mischief while under the influence. Rodieck tried to overcome her reputation for being easy to reveal to her friends that she'd been raped when she was drunk.

The presentation became increasingly intense--though never sanctimonious--and the audience behaved itself, except for the usual incessant chattering in the back. It even seemed supportive at times, applauding when one of the cast members shouted at another, "I'm screaming out for help every time I scream at you!"

But things turned nasty during the second part of the presentation, when the cast was to answer audience questions submitted anonymously on index cards. After trying to sort through the offensive remarks in search of valid questions and comments, Dhevney told the audience, "A lot of these cards are disturbing. To a lot of you this is just a joke--a way of shaming people. I don't know what your future is like if this is the way you treat each other; the level of denial we're experiencing here is phenomenal."

Goff left the stage; Rodieck was in tears.

Yet afterward, at least 40 kids came up on stage to thank the cast for their work, and acknowledge their own substance-abuse problems. This is why the Coming To cast members put themselves on the line week after week.

"It's affecting them," Rodieck said later. "It's affecting their hearts; it's affecting their lives."

"Our students are like powder kegs ready to explode," said Cholla social worker Craig Wunderlich. "When Coming To comes out here, it helps us make contact with kids who wouldn't otherwise come forward. This really stimulates the kids to get involved themselves; just having adults talking to kids doesn't get at the core of the problem."

THE PROBLEM, according to statistics compiled by Coming To, is that one in five teenagers run a high risk of alcoholism. Because heavy alcohol and drug use is linked to health problems, accidents and violence, allowing just one teen to drop out of school for a life of crime and substance abuse can cost society as much as $2.2 million. More of the nation's college undergraduates will ultimately die from alcohol-related causes than will go on to get graduate degrees.

A 1999 Pima Prevention Partnership survey of Pima County adolescents found that 34 percent currently use alcohol, and 13 percent currently use drugs--and those are just the kids who'll admit to it. The survey also found that kids are far more receptive to prevention programs that feature graphic testimony from their peers about their real experiences than to lectures from adults about right and wrong.

"It's like what they always say about the theater: show, don't tell," said Goff. "When we show up, it's like they're finally witnessing something they couldn't see otherwise."

Still, it's a message a lot of kids don't want to hear, and they can be quite vicious in blocking it out. Hawe, the sole male member of this year's troupe, figures for him it's merely payback time.

"When I was using, I'd make fun of kids and try to bring 'em down," he said. "Now, it's worth being called names during the show, because when we have the one-on-one afterwards, I feel like I'm helping people."

Dhevney has been doing Coming To-type work since she launched a precursor company in San Francisco in 1984. It's never been an easy job, but some aspects are becoming increasingly disheartening--as evidenced by the index-card questions that came back from the Cholla group. "Over time," she said, "there's been a cruelty creeping in. Kids are becoming desensitized from their own hearts."

However you regard Coming To, don't call it "teen theater," Dhevney warns. There's more to it than teenagers getting paid to do skits.

"When I came in last year, I thought of this as just an acting experience," said Rodieck. "But it opened my eyes to who I was, and I didn't want to be that person anymore. Acting is fake; this is reality. It takes a lot to stay in Coming To, to face your fears."

Half the kids who enter Coming To each year drop out. Goff, Hawe and Rodieck are the sole survivors of this year's initial seven-member group. They rehearse up to four hours a day, and then give an average of three shows each week. And although they must be brutally honest about themselves, this isn't a detox program. "We don't come here to stay sober," said Rodieck. "We take care of that outside."

"These kids go where angels fear to tread--they go into public high schools, get up there for an hour and a half and work miracles," said Dhevney. "Sometimes just the fact that they stand up there and take the abuse, take the ridicule, makes them cool because they withstand the bullying, and that causes some kids in the audience to break out of their sheep mentality. And these guys make those connections because they're authentic--they start with their hearts."

"I never want to be an actor," Goff insisted. "If this was acting, I wouldn't do it."

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