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Harbison Theatre’s WORLD PREMIER of “Misery is Optional: Recollections of Recovery” to take stark, y

“Misery” cast recreates interviews with those who overcame substance dependency in innovative performance.

Irmo, SC (James Bowers) - Drug and alcohol dependency is a nationwide epidemic. Over 20 million people in the United States had a drug addiction in 2011, while 16.7 million were alcoholics. Every single day saw the deaths of 100 people nationwide from substance abuse.

Opioid dependency accounts for a huge portion of the issue, with almost two-thirds of fatal overdoses coming as a result of drugs from this category such as fentanyl and heroin. Legal opioid-based painkillers are some of the most widely distributed drugs in America. These medications can create sensations of bliss and euphoria.The user then begins to crave these sensations and begins using the drug more and more often. After a while, the good feeling becomes shorter and shorter or even doesn’t occur at all. This phenomenon is the root of addiction.

Ceasing the use of drugs such as opioids is an extremely difficult process. A major effect of addictive substances is the user becoming convinced that they will die if they don’t use these drugs. Many believe that addiction can never truly be overcome. Even if an opioid or alcohol user is able to cease their intake of the drugs for an extended period, eventually the cravings seep in again and the addict will relapse. However, this is not always the case. There are many former alcoholics and drug addicts who were able to stop their dependency and continue to live happy fulfilling lives without ever touching their old vices again, even in the most stressful moments.

Playwrights Dewey Scott-Wiley and Christine Hellman set out to change this notion and began work on Misery is Optional. “There are lots of false assumptions about what addiction is,” Scott-Wiley said. “This piece is a direct reflection of weaving stories together to spread awareness and hope.”

The work will see its world premiere at Harbison Theatre on Saturday, February 17. The play will consist of four actors playing 45 characters, all of whom are telling the real stories of those who have successfully battled drug addiction. Scott-Wiley and Hellman culled these stories from an extensive series of interviews and research performed over a period of several months beginning in June 2017. According to Scott-Wiley, the writing team asked each interviewee the same ten questions. They then listened to each interview, selecting the dialogue based on their goal of creating a story of hope, choosing only the statements that would best fit this narrative. “We would listen to an interview and go no, we need something more hopeful here, or this person said something we haven’t brought up yet,” Scott-Wiley said. “It was really interesting to build this story from the sound files.” Though the team was selective about which portions of the interviews made it into the play, the statements they did use are minimally altered. Christine Hellman transcribed the recordings into a script, including all of the coarse language and random, irrelevant subject changes to maintain the authenticity.

This style of theater constitutes a genre known as documentary theater, in which the plot is based around true stories from those who were involved themselves. This genre is not the most well-known, but has gained increased acclaim over its roughly 20 to 25-year history. Other examples of documentary theater productions include The Laramie Project, a play about the murder of gay Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard in 1998.

In addition to creating and writing the work, Scott-Wiley and Hellman will play two of the Misery is Optional characters. The cast is rounded out by local actors Jason Stokes and Arischa Conner Frierson. Heather Hawfield will serve as set designer for the play. Owing to the raw nature of the stories being told, the actors will switch into different characters right there on the stage, wardrobe changes and all. This element will seem peculiar to some, but it is an innovative way to tell a very compelling story.Floor mics will be placed on the stage at Harbison Theater to enable the cast to speak naturally, avoiding the shouting that stage actors often have to utilize to be heard. Scott-Wiley said the acoustics at the facility are excellent, which the production will benefit from.

Scott-Wiley and Hellman are longtime members of the Columbia theatre scene. Both are members of the TrustusTheatre Company, a longtime producer of local theatrical works in the city. The cast consists entirely of Trustus members. Scott-Wiley is a professor of theater at the University of South Carolina-Aiken. Misery was funded by the Performance Incubator Grant. This program was created by Harbison Theatre in 2012 to encourage talented theatrical producers to cultivate their work at Harbison Theatre and premiere it there before taking their productions to other markets. In its six year history, the performance incubator grant has seen productions such as Woven, Planet Hopping, and Story Squad go on to regional tours after being created in the program. Scott-Wiley says that the grant not only provides the team with a comfortable operating budget, but allows them to retain the materials such as projection equipment and costumes/props. This will enable them to take Misery is Optional to other markets, something the team plans to do. “I think this is the kind of piece that people need to see,” Scott-Wiley said. The issue of addiction is so widespread that everyone in the audience may have present or past struggles with addiction themselves or know someone who has. She says that someone familiar with the issue of addiction may relate to the plights of the characters. For instance, one story may invoke sadness and concern in someone who is not familiar with the scenario, but laughter from another audience member who has gone through the same thing as that character. “I’m interested to see the audience reaction,” Scott-Wiley said.

On Tuesday, Feburary 13, the cast and crew of Misery is Optional will talk to students at Midlands Technical College’s Airport Campus about the play and its message. This reflects MTC’s mission of tying in Harbision Theater’s productions with its academic programs.

Misery is Optional will premiere at Harbison Theatre on Saturday, February 17 at 7:30 pm. Tickets are priced at $24 and can be purchased by visiting harbisontheater.org or calling (803) 407-5011. Tickets may also be purchased at HT’s onsite box office which is open from 9 AM-5 PM, Monday-Friday. The box office will also open at 5 PM on Saturday, February 17.

Dewey Scott-Wiley and Christine Hellman along with other who helped produce Misery

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