High, hallucinating, and addicted to the strong stuff at the Vancouver Fringe Festival
“I’m so fucked up!”
This could be the subtitle of Joint, a darkly funny play about a messy group of foul-mouthed 20-something potheads who screw and screw each other over indiscriminately. Though every character is “fucked up”, this particular cry comes from a character named Lisa, who’s lurching unsteadily in a rehearsal space at UBC, all slurred words and panicked wailing about the baby she’s supposed to be nursing—save for her pesky partying and toxic blood-alcohol count. She’s begging her best friend Mandy to raise her child, the result of a two-week hookup with the title character, Joint. He was also screwing around with Wanda, a total wacko in love with Dude.
Written by Leslie Stark and directed by Barbara Pollard (writer-actor of the Mom’s the Word empire), Joint is something of a Reefer Madness coming-of-age tale for the 21st century. It also happens to be just one of many shows hooked on drugs at this year’s Vancouver International Fringe Festival, which runs from Thursday (September 6) to September 16 on Granville Island and around town.
It’s a happy accident when the festival comes together thematically. Because the shows are selected by random draw, it’s almost impossible to predict what will show up. But with Vancouver’s somewhat lax attitude toward drugs, it makes sense that the Fringe would attract material that explores all aspects of use, and from numerous vantage points—cautionary to celebratory, and plenty of stops in between.
Taking a break from rehearsal, Stark and Pollard sit down to discuss Joint, which seems to fall into the former category.
“This covers an arc of a story of people who try to escape life by being altered, and the consequences of their lives interfere with being able to escape,” Pollard says. “There’s consequences in this play and they have to cope, and some people do and some people aren’t capable.…So many people are self-medicating these days. Alcoholism is on a huge rise amongst young people. But everybody has their drug of choice, whether it’s sex or food or pot or alcohol or heroin or cocaine.”
Stark, who wrote the play originally in 2002, says she wanted to go beyond the familiar landscapes usually depicted on-stage. “Not a lot of the theatre scene really looks at that world—those who partake in marijuana and are a part of that lifestyle—so it was something that I wanted to explore.”
She pulled from firsthand experience, having had a roommate in Winnipeg in the ’90s who made a living growing and selling drugs; she calls him Jay (not his real name).
“At the time I was affiliated with a group of pot users, growers, and such through an ex-boyfriend who also grew. Jay was a nice guy but his life lacked direction. He spent most of his days hanging out upstairs (I had the downstairs apartment), drinking, getting stoned, and using porn. In fact, he was pretty much addicted to porn.”
A few years later, Stark became pregnant at the same time as Jay’s young girlfriend, and everyone was forced to grow up—though for some it was easier said than done. When it came time to craft her thesis for her MFA in creative writing at UBC, Stark adhered to the old adage: write what you know.
“People that I met through that world were interesting people and very passionate,” she says. “They had these crazy lives that were very dramatic.”
Jayson McDonald describes Underbelly as a series of fevered hallucinations. No surprise: it’s based on the life of William S. Burroughs. Tara Travis photo.
Similarly, the dramatics are almost nonstop in Jayson McDonald’s Underbelly, which was inspired by the life and work of William S. Burroughs. It takes its structure from scraps of Burroughs’s biography, writing, and art—all of which were influenced, at least in part, by his lifelong heroin addiction and his role as the elder statesman of the beat generation.
“Burroughs’s work really exemplifies that experience,” McDonald says, over the phone from his home in London, Ontario. “It was all a reaction: to his upbringing, coming out of World War II, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and all those horrible, horrible things. Even though it felt like there was no future, these artists [the Beats] did everything they could to wrest some kind of future back from these horrible
warmongers who wanted it destroyed. It was a really difficult time to be alive, to be young, to have something to say.”
McDonald himself has never grappled with addiction, but his fascination with Burroughs and the rest of the Beats sparked a lifelong feeling of kinship and curiosity. The show itself, which McDonald has described as a series of fevered hallucinations, attempts to give some context to Burroughs’s work.
“Burroughs was a junkie for most of his life,” he says. “He was addicted to all kinds of things. He was not a fan of psychotropic drugs, particularly, but he was a heroin addict for quite some time, prescription drugs, that sort of thing. There was an attempt to remove himself from the world at large, to shield himself from the world, and drugs played a big part of that.…The self-destructive tendencies of the Beats are pretty fascinating, and I suppose that comes from a place, you know, of ‘Fuck it. They’re gonna blow up the whole goddamned world, so whatever.’ I think for Burroughs it was more; he was very socially awkward. He grew up in a very stiff environment and so wasn’t really very well-equipped to give and receive love, which is kind of an underlying theme of the show as well. The emotional arc is his effort to understand how to be loved, basically. I really feel like drugs were a numbing agent, like they always are.”
Martin Dockery doesn’t see it that way. If anything, his show The Bike Trip not only celebrates psychedelics, but advocates for their life-changing potential.
“I really believe in LSD,” the New York City–based artist says, speaking to the Straight over Skype from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. “It’s so often mocked and treated with a certain ridicule in pop culture that I wanted to do a show that’s not like that at all. It’s just telling stories from a regular guy and stories about how LSD is a great tool, a great key, to unlock moments of connection between people in the world.”
Dockery first experienced this psychedelic clarity on a beach in India, and he calls the experience “life-changing”. But when it came to creating a show about LSD, he took his inspiration from a book written by the grandfather of the drug himself, Albert Hoffman. In LSD: My Problem Child, Hoffman, a Swiss scientist, chronicles his accidental discovery of LSD during a lab experiment, along with his first trip on the drug while riding his bicycle home from the office. Dockery decided to recreate Hoffman’s journey just after Christmas of 2008, and two weeks later, he performed The Bike Trip for the first time.
“I thought, ‘What if I go back to that place, that geographical place, and try to emulate his experience, and would that tie me to some sort of greater understanding of what is at the heart of the psychedelic experience?’” While that drives the narrative, Dockery says he doesn’t think that The Bike Trip simply glorifies getting high.
“It has humorous moments, but the LSD is just like a tool or key,” he says. “The story that unfolds from it never really mentions it again. It’s not about confusion or feeling like I’m anybody other than myself or crazy colours or anything that’s silly, anything that would tie into pop culture’s idea of LSD.
“The show’s funny, but it’s not about just getting wasted,” he continues. “It’s really all through connection, whether that connection is with other people or whether that connection is to the world, or a connection with myself. The show is about my own story and growing up in a household where emotion wasn’t really expressed and things weren’t communicated well, and how this tool allows me to let down whatever barriers I have within my psyche that inhibit me from experiencing extreme emotions—which we all need to experience to appreciate the richness of life, whether that’s love or heartbreak or both. I feel like it has allowed me that.”
Dockery acknowledges that LSD isn’t right for everyone, but says he hopes his show challenges “misinformation and the cartoonish characterization of LSD and psychedelics in general that’s…based on fear and is propagated by government or conservative-minded people who haven’t tried it themselves”.
His hope is that The Bike Trip will entertain, first and foremost, but that it will also facilitate a new conversation on LSD, and ultimately allow thoughts to become actions.
“It puts people on edge, but to have somebody, a regular person, just talking about it openly and sincerely, I hope will allow other people to consider opening themselves up to the idea of trying this thing themselves,” Dockery says.
Well, if there’s one place to experiment, indulge, and try new things, this is it. Fringe Fest 2012: Just say yes.