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Tackling Opioids through Youth Theatre

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  • Current: Tackling Opioids through Youth Theatre

“Before Love Over Dose, I knew drugs existed, and I knew they were bad. Now, I feel educated because I was able to learn everything about opioids. Because of my knowledge and working on this play, I learned how to touch people and make change.” - Graham “AD,” student assistant director

The opioid epidemic has become an increasing concern in Indiana, and because youth are most likely to start experimenting with drugs between the ages of 10 and 14, many are wrestling with how to talk to them about this growing crisis. But whether adults have these conversations with the young people they know or not, youth are still thinking about it... because they’re affected by it. Or so, that’s what we learned from the students involved in the Young Actors Theatre (YAT) production of Love Over Dose.

130 people die from opioid overdoses every day in the USA. And Indiana’s overdose death rate, at 29.4%, is higher than the national average of 21.7%. Because of that, it’s highly plausible that our young people know someone suffering.

Education and empowerment through theatre

So how do we open up the conversation – or more importantly, how do we engage our youth in this conversation? Because according to YAT, just saying “don’t do drugs” won’t prepare them to navigate the complex situations ahead of them.

And I bet by now you’ve guessed it – YAT believes theatre is the answer. But not just any type of theatre, of course.

YAT works on a different approach to youth theatre: theatre developed by youth, for youth. They call it Self-Empowerment Theatre, where they use theatre to instill confidence, creativity, and discipline. Instead of buying scripts from Broadway plays and reproducing them, YAT introduced the technique of devised theatre – where students work with their directors to write their own plays about social issues that matter to them, like bullying, dating violence, gun control, and more. That’s how we got here, to Love Over Dose.

This type of theatre grounded in social education is especially powerful for young actors. The youth involved with this play are invested not only in the performance, but in the message. After all, they did help research and write the script.

“I wanted to educate myself. That’s why I joined this cast. And I hope that after people watch this, they know this is more than a ‘big deal.’ We don’t want to add to the stigma. We want to give an accurate representation of what this experience feels like to anyone involved, so hopefully, they will change the way they think about it and change their mind about ever trying these kinds of drugs.” – Reese, young actor

YAT spent all of 2019 researching and writing this play thanks to a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. The first four months of the year were spent in research, where the young actors and YAT staff met with experts from all corners of the opioid crisis – probation officers, first responders, scientists, advocates, people in recovery, physicians, and more. Over the next four months, they took all of that research and began to experiment with different stories until they landed here.

The premise:
Alex’s sister Riley is dead of an accidental overdose, and Alex is alone in the hospital bathroom with a bottle of Riley’s pills. Alex must decide what path to go down: take the pills and follow Riley? Take the pills and numb the pain? Or a different path? Through memories, movement, and a compelling story by the creative team and Young Actors Theatre, a cast of six actors bring to life a story of loss and love that can happen anywhere, and does happen everywhere.

Since finishing the script, they’ve spent the last four months rehearsing and performing for test audiences and focus groups, continuing to evolve and tweak it.

The process has had a profound effect on the young actors, and as they prepare to take the performance out to more than 5,000 6th-12th grade students in schools, they look forward to the honest peer-to-peer dialogue. Love Over Dose will run two casts of six members each, allowing them to travel to more schools and broaden their impact.

“I wanted to be involved in this play to have a deeper understanding of what’s going on with this crisis that affects people I actually know. I wanted to know about the science and what happens in people’s bodies on these drugs. I hope we help people become more aware of what’s going on, and that they care more.” – Hannah, young actor

It’s risky, but it’s worth it

YAT knows that this production is risky – emotionally risky. That’s why they will invite schools to bring a counselor, and will also work to secure mental health professionals to be available at performances, too.

“Watching this play is an emotional journey for the audience. But it’s much less emotional from the seat than to experience it first-hand. That’s the power of delivering this message in this way,” said Lillian Crabb, YAT managing director.

And while there’s a risk, the reward tremendously outweighs it. This type of peer-to-peer intervention empowers youth to grasp onto the power buried within, to speak to people their own age and know that they’ll listen.

The message: empowering youth to stop the crisis

What does YAT want today’s youth to walk away with? The message is peer-to-peer, loud, and clear: this crisis stops with their generation, now.

And that’s a message for us all to consider. How can arts education (in any form) heal, impact, and transform our communities? If you have a story of impact, please share it with us.

YAT will be traveling Love Over Dose to schools throughout the state of Indiana in 2020. To reserve matinee tickets for your school group or to bring the production to your school, contact Lillian Crabb at

See all upcoming public performances here.

Love Over Dose was made possible by a two-year grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Activities of Young Actors Theatre are made possible in part by the Indiana Arts Commission, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.