Illicit performance to share the realities of life as a drug user surviving the fentanyl crisis

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      There’s no neighbourhood breakdown of overdose deaths in Vancouver but everyone knows that the Downtown Eastside has experienced the worst of the city’s fentanyl crisis.

      Last December, for example, there were eight fatal overdoses in that neighbourhood in a single night. It’s an astounding number for a community comprised of less than 20 square blocks.

      To help people understand what is happening in the Downtown Eastside and share the realities of life as a drug user, a group of frontline responders is bringing an arts and theatre production to the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre next Friday (August 11).

      Called Illicit: Stories from a harm reduction movement, the workshop performance will also engage audiences, hear their feedback, and continue to fine-tune the project for future runs.

      “They’re going to see the truth,” Tina Shaw told the Straight. “They’re going to see everything that has been hidden and covered up about what life is like for an addict.”

      In Illicit, Shaw plays Ash, the production’s main character and, in Shaw’s words, “A very strong, very outspoken woman.”

      Shaw also works in overdose response at the Maple Overdose-Prevention Site, one of the province’s new stripped-down injection sites that’s located in an alley near Main and East Hastings streets. She’s one of 12 past and present drug users who have been working on Illicit with Kelty McKerracher, an expressive art therapist who secured funding for the project.

      In a telephone interview, McKerracher explained that the group of 12 is bonded by ties to the Drug Users Resource Centre (DURC), a community drop-in that the Portland Hotel Society used to run adjacent to Oppenheimer Park. Vancouver Coastal Health cut funding for the community centre last year, forcing it to close. McKerracher explained that Illicit then emerged from the people who accessed services at DURC who kept in touch.

      “The community at DURC was so vibrant and creative that from the moment I started working there, I could see the potential for some kind of large-scale performance that could celebrate the community, what the community can build together, and the harm-reduction movement in general,” McKerracher said.

      She noted that DURC ran an overdose-prevention site before it closed and that it was one of the first community groups hosting free naloxone-training sessions and teaching drug users how to respond to an overdose. With Illicit she said audiences can expect a production based on those experiences and the work that many DURC members have continued with on the front lines of the community’s response to fentanyl.

      “They 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 added.

      Tina Shaw, who works in overdose response in the Downtown Eastside, plays the lead character in an upcoming production about Vancouver's fentanyl crisis.

      B.C. is on track to see more than 1,500 overdose deaths by the end of 2017. That’s up from 967 fatal overdoses last year, 517 in 2015, and 368 in 2014, and compares to an average of 204 deaths each year from 2001 to 2010.

      Nicolas Leech-Crier is a writer and another member of the team producing Illicit. He also works in overdose response in the Downtown Eastside with Spikes on Bikes, a Portland Hotel Society initiative that dispatches alley patrols with naloxone and other harm-reduction supplies.

      “The show will be educational and anecdotal, about what’s going on and how people feel, and hopefully end with a discussion,” he said. “It’s about truth and understanding and about acknowledging the uncertainty, the loss, and the tragic unfairness of it.”

      Illicit is part of the Vancouver Outsider Arts Festival and produced by the Community Arts Council of Vancouver with funding from the Canadian Council for the Arts and the City of Vancouver. Admission to the August 11 workshop performance is free. More information is available at

      Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver. His first book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City's Struggle with Addiction, will be published in October 2017. You can follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.