A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Today, to close our “Shakespeare Week” we change tack very slightly to talk to Phil Fox – the founder and Artistic Director of the Outside Edge Theatre Company, based in Hammersmith.
Outside Edge is the only professional theatre company in the UK that provides theatre and drama for and with those affected by drug and alcohol addiction.
Founded in 1999, the theatre receives no fixed revenue funding in spite of both a proven track record and the heavyweight support of patrons Kika Markham, Jimmy Page and Mark Rylance. It therefore survives from project to project, relying entirely on individual donations and any profits from its professional theatrical productions.
VL: First of all Phil, a warm welcome to Vulpes Libris and thank you very much for making time during what I know is a very intense schedule to answer a few questions. We should probably start at the beginning – if it’s okay with you – by saying that addiction is something you know an awful lot about?
PF: That’s very true. All my life I’ve been affected by substance misuse in one way or another. I started my own journey into active drug addiction around the age of 15/16. I was trying to anaesthetise emotional pain and trauma. But the drugs I was taking only deepened my despair rather than lessened it. When I was 17 I tried to take my life on several occasions and very nearly succeeded. After spending time in a psychiatric hospital, I managed to gain some equilibrium, and then a girlfriend of mine died from a drugs overdose. After that I kind of stepped over a line. Whatever choice I had over my drug use vanished. Now I found that I had to use. The drugs were in control, not me. Yet, at the back of all this was a passion for drama that I’d always had. Theatre particularly. It was something I’d been good at. Initially I was interested in writing for theatre. This was a bit of a problem, since I’m dyslexic, but it was something I really wanted to do. Joan Littlewood had seen some of my work and wanted to see more. But by then I was hell bent on destroying myself and I did no more writing. Then, although it didn’t seem possible, things began to get worse. Not so much as in big things happening, prison or losing limbs through fixing up, that kind of thing, but a sort of narrowing down of options, a rapid chipping away at your sense of self and reality. It always seemed to be raining when I was in active addiction. I was about 20 when I attended a short intensive acting course. I became overwhelmed with the need to become an actor. I felt that if I didn’t act I was going to die. And, despite the suicide attempts, by now I wanted to live. I applied to Manchester Polytechnic to join their theatre course and was accepted. I got through the course and promptly lost my first professional job due to my drug addiction. This finally drove me out of denial about my drug use and I sought help. At this point I stopped using and started to have a life. Theatre saved my life.
PF: I was working as an actor. As is the way of the actor, you need to supplement your work with other work. I’d manage to start doing drama workshops in prisons and rehabs etc, and participants would come up to me afterwards and ask if they could do more. I’d always been interested in community theatre, especially the ideas initially formulised by pioneers such as Brecht and Boal, and with my own understanding of theatre I felt it could be a powerful tool for working with people affected by addiction. Out of these influences, I thought it would be a good idea to found a company that was focused on working with addiction. And inside, I knew that theatre had saved my life and the core reason I started Edge was that I believed that this was a way to save other lives too.
VL: Once a week you run Theatre Drop-In sessions for ‘newbies’, followed later the same evening by The Edge Theatre Group meetings. Can you tell us a bit more about those – who attends them, and what happens at them?
PF: The theatre drop-in is for people in the very early stages of recovery from some form of substance misuse. Here the emphasis is on having fun. And the group mainly concentrates on work that introduces participants to improvisation, theatre and drama skills such as voice and speech, physical agility etc. The later group requires more commitment and focuses on developing theatre and drama skills that lead to devised performances based on participants’ own stories. This later group is made up of people who may have a little more time in recovery from drug/alcohol addiction. The only requirement for people to join either of these groups is that they are clean from drugs, including alcohol, on the day, when they attend.
VL: Why do you think it is that people are apparently willing to discuss and explore their problems much more freely through drama than in – say – a one-on-one meeting with a counsellor?
PF: I think it is very hard for an addict in early recovery to get away from experiencing their problems in an intellectual way. Drama comes at people from a different, more unusual angle, and it requires participants to work from their instincts and emotional lives: the very thing that addiction suppresses and destroys. People tell their stories. People hear other people’s stories. They create pieces of drama from mixing these all up and then perform them back to others in similar situations. They feel emotionally attached to their work yet not overwhelmed by it since it is a drama, a kind of game, and an experiment even. And by performing work, which is based on their experiences, they can see that it helps others. Their suffering isn’t as pointless as it once seemed. And they no longer feel alone.
VL: You do a lot of community outreach work too, don’t you? In hostels and prisons … and with children and young people?
PF: Yes, that’s right. In another part of the company we create pieces of work that we tour to drug and alcohol treatment centres, and prisons all over the country. These theatrical interventions focus on the difficulties addicts face before, during and after treatment and are always interactive. We usually employ professional actors who have had experience of addiction and recovery for this as well as encouraging actors from our drama groups to take part. Work here is often devised and is of a high professional standard.
Then there is the work we do with young people and children, who are usually carers of drug addicts and alcoholics or who are about to start their own journeys into addiction. Much of the work here is preventative.
We were recently commissioned to produce a play that dealt with intergenerational drug misuse that was to be toured to drug/alcohol treatment centres. We came up with a piece called Border Crossings. Based on a true story, it focused on a 14-year-old girl who was forced into Internet pornography by her substance misusing parents. The girl then goes onto develop her own addiction and the play ends with her very uncertain future and the beginnings of a serious heroin and crack cocaine habit. Each time, almost, at the commencement of such work I keep thinking that such experiences are rare. Yet each time I’m amazed at the responses we get. For Border Crossings, for instance, at one treatment centre three audience members came up to us afterwards and declared that this is exactly the kind of experience they themselves had gone through. They went on to say that they felt relieved and less fearful about approaching the work they knew they had to do on themselves after seeing Border Crossings. They were grateful that their stories were being told. While one resident of another rehab told us that ‘their treatment began today’ after seeing the play. Counsellors often report that we accelerate and deepen their clients’ recoveries. It’s powerful stuff drama. And it really works.
VL: Given how effective your ‘theatrical interventions’ are – it’s amazing, and really quite shameful that you can’t get any statutory funding – much like the struggles Camila Batmanghelidjh at Kids Company has had for years … What can people do to help?
PF: Funding is always an issue. And the more work we do, the more we find that there is more work to be done. I sometimes feel we are stigmatised. Or people are fearful of us. Support the company in any way you can. Come and see our work, understand what we do and talk about us with your friends and/or make a donation (any donation, big or small, will make a difference). We could really do with your help. There is a terrific need out there for what we do and sadly, I think, it’s going to get bigger.
VL: And once a year, of course, you stage a professional, public theatrical production that tours London. This year it’s “One Day at a Time” about Bill Wilson and how – and why – he and Dr Bob Smith created Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, you wrote it yourself of course, and it’s an interesting choice of subject because AA is a surprisingly divisive topic. Is that why you chose it?
PF: With One Day at a Time I wanted to explore the impact that Alcoholics Anonymous has had on society. Of course, AA evokes equal measures of hatred and veneration. But at the same time it has saved thousands of lives since its inception over 70 years ago. I find it fascinating that it has no leaders or ideologues and is entirely run by ex-alcoholics, while addicts of all kinds have found recovery by the adaptation of its program. I wanted to find the something in its message that has affected so many people, chemical addict or not.
VL: It’s about to enter the final week of its run – at The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith. Are there still tickets available?
PF: A few. But if you want one you’d better hurry. They are going seriously fast.
VL: And finally, it’s a custom on Vulpes to ask our guests to choose their five favourite books, plays or poems and give reasons for their choices. The floor is yours …
PF: Siddhartha – Herman Hesse: an important book that I return to again and again. It always reminds me to look into the river for the answers.
The Tempest – William Shakespeare: I love its containment and the fact it was one of Shakespeare’s last plays. It sits on the edge of the mystery and magnitude that we are all just a wisp away from.
Jerusalem – Jez Butterworth: and not just because Outside Edge patron Mark Rylance gave a stunning performance in it, although that’s part of it. The play has everything; amazing humour, pathos and truth with undercurrents of the powerful unseen forces that shape our lives.
Leaves of Glass – Philip Ridley: a dark play, subtle and scary with a menacing subversion of theatrical form at its heart.
Olly’s Prison – Edward Bond: an example of a master-playsmith. Although written 20 years ago, it never ceases to inform and shape my own work.
VL: Those are thoroughly intriguing choices … It’s been fascinating talking to you, Phil. Thank you again for making the time – ‘break a leg’ for the last week of ‘One Day’ and all the best for the future.
You can still catch “One Day at a Time” (in which, incidentally, our own Jay Benedict is playing Bill Wilson) at Studio 3, Riverside Studios, Hammersmith from Tuesday the 23rd to Sunday the 28th of November.
If you would like to support Outside Edge in its work, you can donate by PayPal using the link on the company’s website.
They also have a Facebook page.
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.