Our latest research session, the first of the new year, shifted us into an exciting new phase. Having met for a total of 5 sessions now, playing with tableaux creation, forum theatre, movement, improv, writing, spoken prose, and music, things are starting to take shape and we can see the outlines of a performance on the horizon!
This emerging clarity comes at a high price, as the state of emergency in the neighbourhood due to the opiate overdose crisis is lending a sense of urgency to our work. In December, some of us attended the Town Hall meeting on the overdose crisis at City Hall. The searing speeches from panelists including Leslie McBain of Moms Stop the Harm, Patrick Smith of Culture Saves Lives, and others galvanized us to see our work differently.
Widespread stigma about illicit drugs and illicit drug users is killing people. This stigma permeates every level of our social systems and institutions, with the result that meaningful action is not taken to stop the loss of life until it is far, far too late. We have seen this firsthand, as frontline activists and drug users took matters into their own hands this fall by founding the Overdose Prevention Society, operating overdose response sites and administering Narcan in tents set up in alleys, unsanctioned and unhelped by local government or the health authority. Now that overdose rates have hit historic highs and ever more deadly opiates are found in drugs of all kinds, governments and the health authorities are responding. Many of the co-researchers for the Illicit project are administering Narcan and saving lives every day, not to mention losing loved ones.
All this as the Drug Users Resource Centre (DURC), has finally been closed and is now operating with only bare-bones programming as a Rapid Overdose Response site. The timing of this closure could not be more ill-conceived, to put it mildly.
In light of these realities, the ability for the 15 of us to meet for creative time together to reflect on and express what the community is going through is deeply needed. We see our work as an essential part of the effort to reduce stigma and therefore contribute to harm reduction as a public health strategy. The arts have a way of opening our eyes and hearts to the experiences of others. This is our hope with Illicit. One co-researcher, Tina, called it a “shift in consciousness“, saying:
What we are doing here is going to be so much bigger than any of us realize! … I believe that [Illicit] is going to have an impact that will be a catalyst for changing mindsets and perceptions, policies and procedures and current antiquated and ineffective laws where illicit drugs are concerned…
So, we start out the new year having identified four major areas of inquiry:
1) Humanize people who use drugs
2) Destigmatize and demystify illicit drug culture
3) Reveal the War on Drugs as a war on drug users
4) Confront a lack of political will to act on behalf of the lives of drug users
There is a great deal of grief, sadness, and anger at the situation this community is facing. Yet, one of the clear directives from the group is that our work should inform, not alienate. We aim to invite audiences into the emotional reality of the world of illicit drug users with the intent of widening the circle of understanding, care, and compassion.
And, have a little fun while we are at it! Because one of the best ways to humanize is with HUMOUR. And the amount of laughter that happens during our research sessions is a testament to the resilience and liveliness of everyone involved.