Thursday, March 13, 2003

Alcohol on stage: What price the bottle?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

An ad campaign now being broadcast on Maine television stations warns parents that they are misleading themselves about teen drinking. The Maine Office of Substance Abuse conducted a study of Maine parents, and compared the results with the annual Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey administered in schools all over the state.

Over 80 percent of Maine parents, the study shows, believe their kids have " not had more than a few sips of alcohol in their life. " But 65 percent of teens say they’ve had " more than a few sips of alcohol. "

And nearly every Maine parent — 98 percent of them, in a survey with a four-percent margin of error — believe their child hasn’t had alcohol in the past month. But over a third of teens — 38 percent — have, in fact, consumed alcohol in the last 30 days.

Alcohol is a part of adult life, and a part of young-adult life, teen life. At a recent community meeting in Cape Elizabeth, a parent asked teens why they drink. The response — aside from the predictable silence — was a question: " Why do adults drink? " That answer was even more predictable: silence from the adults.

As life on stage reflects life off-stage, so does alcohol appear in both worlds. It may have started, as Andrew Sokoloff suggests, in the distant past. " The list of alcoholic playwrights is a long, sad, and honorable one, " extending as far back as Shakespeare, he says. Sokoloff is the artistic director at Mad Horse Theater and says " the use of alcohol on stage depends mightily upon the time the play was written and the time it’s produced. "

Alcohol, in short, is part of an accurate portrayal of life. " Good playwrights . . . put alcohol in their plays for many of the same reasons people in real life drink: to kill pain, to tell the truth, to have fun, to feel more alive, to feel closer to someone, " Sokoloff says.

Anita Stewart, artistic director at Portland Stage Company, agrees. " The theater is often a mirror of our culture, and in our society alcohol has played and continues to play a tremendous role. "

Recent examples of alcohol on Maine stages include True West at Portland Stage, in which both main characters got drunk, one to drown his pain when confronting society and the other to distance himself from the realization that his sheltered experience was not the raw stuff of life a movie producer wanted.

Straitlaced Austin behaved like the stereotypical drunk most commonly found in college freshman dormitories: Barely able to stand and slurring words badly, a man at the end of the night sits on the floor surrounded by empty beer cans, singing to himself. It is a means by which playwright Sam Shepard shows the audience the depth to which Austin has sunk, without actually having a character come out and say, " Gosh, Austin, you look awful. " The alcohol is a vehicle for communicating a message.

Over at the St. Lawrence, the Cast put on Pvt. Wars, in which the three characters drink frequently in an Army hospital. It is a sign of their growing camaraderie that, as the play progresses, first one man drinks alone, then another joins him, and finally the third man takes up a glass as well. The message? He has joined the group, become part of at least the hospital society again, and may be moving more toward " normal, " despite his deep physical injuries and evident psychological distress.

And, most recently, there was the bottle of alcohol used by a newly empowered woman, rejecting the traditional social anesthetic and choosing instead to use it as a weapon to overpower a death-crazed doctor in Carolyn Gage’s Thanatron, performed by Cauldron & Labrys.

Stewart’s choice for most memorable alcohol-related scene is in Betrayal and Emma, by Harold Pinter, in which " a smart, together woman " tells her lover she is pregnant, while drinking vodka. " In the ‘70s that was normal; now it is unimaginable. I wonder if drunken scenes will ever have that same bone-chilling effect on me, " Stewart says.

Alcohol has yet to carry the same moral weight as smoking, Stewart says. " We get tons of complaints if someone lights up, even briefly, on stage, but no one seems to be that bothered by drinking, " she says.

Teen issues are beginning to get some attention in local theater, especially with David J. Mauriello’s To Bear Witness at the Players’ Ring, in which a teen holds a gun while contemplating his friend’s suicide. I have yet to see a drunk teen character on a local stage; the numbers say it’s time.


• Watch this space for the first glimpse of the 2003/2004 season at the Players’ Ring in Portsmouth. Scuttlebutt is that they have had proposals from a bunch of new playwrights, as well as a version of The Hobbit and several rarely seen classic plays. When the group makes their decision, " Backstage " will get the word out so you can mark your calendars.

• Room to move: The Theater At Monmouth ( has a few design and production slots open for the summer, and improv and sketch comedy group TRATCO is looking for one or two women to join the cast (

• Carol Noonan headlines a benefit concert for the Public Theatre in Lewiston March 29. Showtime’s at 8 p.m., tickets are $15. It’s a great way to support this excellent theater, which is now showing a play, Gun-Shy, exploring what happens if your divorce isn’t working.

• Props to Bonny Eagle and Biddeford high schools, who move on to the states after winning the Southern Maine Regional Drama Festival last weekend in South Portland.