Creating Outreach Through Theater about the Opioid Epidemic: An Interview with Ana Bess Moyer Bell
By Val Walker
Ana Bess Moyer Bell is the founder of COAAST, a non-profit organization in Rhode Island that offers arts-based education and therapeutic programing to address the opioid epidemic, aid in prevention education for teens, and continuing medical education for healthcare professionals. She most recently graduated from New York University with a Masters in Drama Therapy. She currently works as a Drama Therapy consultant for The BETES Organization creating and implementing theater-based programs for families of children diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. She previously worked as a drama therapist at Access Community Health Center, an outpatient substance abuse clinic, in Manhattan, New York. She held a position as drama therapist at the VA Hospital in West Haven Connecticut, and worked with patients in hospice, cancer treatment, and with PTSD diagnoses. From 2013-2014 she volunteered in San Quentin Prison where she co-facilitated group talk therapy with inmates.
COAAST is a non-profit 501(c)(3) whose mission is to create an ongoing dialogue about addiction and recovery through arts-based community-engaged programming. COAAST (Creating Outreach about Addiction Support Together) is a community-oriented organization that helps individuals recognize addiction not only affects the addicted person, but also their family. Their programs use this saying as a guide: “We hurt in relationship, therefore we heal in relationship.”
Val: What sparked your interest in doing theater about the opioid epidemic?
Ana Bess: I lost my high school sweetheart to an overdose in 2012, which I thought to be an isolated incident. By 2014, three more of my friends died from addiction. I was suffering from the grief of so much loss along with many others around me. There was a feeling of isolation inside this kind of grief because heroin addiction is stigmatized, and often there are feelings of deep shame. From my own suffering I understood that addiction is a family disease, as well as a community disease.
2014 was the turning point when I realized something bigger was happening—more overdoses were reported that year in New England, the worst ever. Communities were desperate. We needed to share our experiences in a way that brought families, friends and communities together. Because I knew theater could be a safe place to explore our stories together, I believed the timing was right to start a theater project about this crisis.
As soon as I became openly vocal about it on Facebook, it seemed like people came out of the woodwork to tell me their story. I inadvertently became the town’s story collector. From these stories themes began to arise; shame, silence, guilt, scapegoating, loss…etc. Finally, I sat down and teased out all the salient themes, and used them to write the play, Four Legs to Stand On.
Val: How does theater create a safe place for healing?
Ana Bess: Theater does two opposing things, both at the same time: It brings you in so you can empathize with the characters, but it also provides distance, so you see their situation in a larger perspective. Sitting in the audience with the physical distance of the stage, we can be deeply touched while gaining a greater perspective all at once. This happens simultaneously, so we’re participating in an event in real time, while reflecting on it. Theater asks a lot of us as participants, both in the audience and on stage.
Val: You say theater asks a lot of us as participants, to feel and react, but also to see the bigger picture more clearly at the same time. When it comes to the topic of the opioid epidemic, what is it about a performance that heals the grief and suffering?
Ana Bess: First, just acknowledging people are suffering from being stigmatized, and suffering alone. This very act of acknowledgment connects us. As the story unfolds on stage, we see how this epidemic has separated and divided us, and how we are isolated in our suffering.
Val: It’s ironic-- by acknowledging the aloneness of our grief together in a theater, we become connected.
Ana Bess: Yes, and by witnessing our own stories, we become more compassionate and empathetic with ourselves. We must start with ourselves. Even subconsciously, we feel a call to action within ourselves.
When we go to see a performance we create a supportive community, at least for a brief period in time. This is especially important for people struggling with addiction. Research has shown they are more likely to seek help, enter rehab, and follow through with long-term recovery when they have a supportive community and family.
After each of our performances we always provide a 20-30 minute period for the actors to take questions from the audience. Talking together following the performance is a vital part of healing. This offers the audiences a space to process their feelings, tell their own story, and brainstorm what their immediate community can do in terms of social action. We often perform for medical communities, such as Harvard medical staff, the Rhode Island Department of Health, and other healthcare entities. CEUs and CMEs can be provided.
Val: I’ve read terrific reviews of your play, Four Legs to Stand On, which toured this fall throughout Massachusetts. Can you tell us more about this year’s highlights with your group, COAAST?
Ana Bess: Where do I begin? What all of us as a cast sat with over and over again this fall was the overwhelming amount of loss. Town after town, we were faced with mothers, daughters, uncles, friends, and lovers of those lost to opioid addiction. When we were in Middleborough, there was a mother in the audience whose son had died five days prior to us performing, and I’m not exaggerating in saying that every single person in that sold-out crowd had lost someone to addiction. The devastation this epidemic has caused was so palpable every place we performed, and yet felt so silenced.
I learned again the dire need for better and more accessible treatment. Again, over and over, it was glaringly clear how important family and community support is; not only for our addicted ones, but also for those who love them.
At our final performance at a gorgeous black box theater in Franklin, one of the audience members pointed to a lack of attendance. If this were another more fashionable disease, he stated, the room would be filled with a line out the door. So, I guess that’s what I’m left with: stigma is still our biggest battle.
Val: Where will you be performing in 2017? What lies ahead?
Ana Bess: I will be using the performance to teach at some Universities this winter, and we have begun booking already for our spring tour. You can find those dates on our website: www.coaast.org. If you are interested in bringing us to your local community theater, hospital, or school, please contact us.
Val: If you could sum up why storytelling through theater is vital for you, what would you say?
Ana Bess: I believe in the power of storytelling; it is how we make meaning of our lives. Story is a meaning-making tool. Through performing, sharing and witnessing our stories, we’re able to uncover what it means to be a human being. It helps us feel less alone, less disconnected, and more understood.
Val: This is such important work you are doing. I’m honored and thankful to have spent some time with you today.
Ana Bess: Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it.
Ana Bess Moyer suggests these websites for further reading about COAAST and the opioid crisis.
LEARN TO COPE, a support network for families coping with addiction and recovery