Downtown Eastside's Illicit theatre group goes on the road with gritty reality of the fentanyl crisis

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      Over the last year, a Downtown Eastside theatre troupe has used art to share the realities of addiction in the age of the fentanyl crisis. Called Illicit, the series of workshop performances engaged audiences, integrated their feedback, and fined-tuned the project for future runs.

      Having just completed a trio of shows at the Orpheum Annex, Illicit is now preparing to travel beyond Vancouver for the first time.

      On July 11, the group is scheduled to perform Illicit: A Shadow Story in Victoria at the Belfry Theatre. To follow are tentative engagements in Kamloops and Edmonton, and the group has received an invitation to bring their show to the annual National Harm Reduction Conference in New Orleans this October.

      "Through the magic of shadow theatre, music, and poetry, you've never experienced the Downtown Eastside like this before!" reads the event's Facebook page.

      In a telephone interview, David Mendes, Illicit's community liaison and shadow director, said the show is all about breaking down stigma.

      "Getting people to understand that drug users don't need to be treated like second-class citizens," he told the Straight. "That's all we're trying to do. Is get people looking at what we're doing. A show made by drug users and produced by drug users. That in itself shows that drug users are not a useless group of people. We aim to shine a light on that. Policy change through education through the arts."

      B.C. is on track to see roughly 1,500 overdose deaths by the end of 2018. That compares to 1,449 fatal overdoses last year and 995 in 2016. From 2001 to 2010, the average number of fatal overdoses recorded across B.C. each year was 204.

      In August 2017, Illicit's Kelty McKerracher described the production—which has ties to the nonprofit Portland Hotel Society—against a backdrop of that epidemic of drug-overdose deaths. In that context, she said, the project serves as a source of empowerment for the community.

      “They [audiences] are going to see a very honest and vulnerable sharing of music, poetry, and movement—an interdisciplinary work that is raw and has the goal of humanizing people who use drugs,” McKerracher told the Straight.

      Illicit combines different mediums such as live performance and shadow puppets to present a gritty narrative of addiction in the age of the fentanyl crisis.

      Speaking this week, Mendes added that the group of Downtown Eastside performers has benefited from training provided by Mind of a Snail Puppet Co. and, more recently, has worked with David Diamond, the founder and long-time artistic director of Vancouver's Theatre for Living.

      "He came to our rehearsal space for four days and really, really focused on building characters and creating characters," Mendes said. "It definitely raised the production level and now we're ready to go on the road."