A soccer player, an athlete and a drug dealer sat together in a half-circle in the center of the stage. Each character slumped in their chair, reflective and resigned, as they explained how their prescription drug addiction began.
In the audience were 9-12th grade students at Cornell High School. The district was chosen to participate in the Drug Enforcement Administration’s national 360 Strategy, being piloted for the first time in the Pittsburgh region.
The play, performed by actors with the Pittsburgh-based Saltworks Theater Company, is called “Off Script,” and was written based on the actual experiences of former drug addicts.
Last year, Allegheny County experienced 613 drug-related fatalities. Coraopolis, where Cornell High School is located, accounted for 11 deaths.
“We have to think outside the box and we have to reach our children, our young folks,” said DEA special agent David Battiste. “They have to be educated and not go off premises of misconceptions.”
“Off Script” featured students of varying demographics—a well-to-do suburban scholar, a successful athlete and a well-meaning drug dealer who believes he’s helping people by providing prescription medications—all falling victim to the effects of prescription opioids.
Justin, a soccer player portrayed by Andy Hickly, gets a knee surgery after a rough game. After a while, he doubles his dosage of Vicodin, heightening his tolerance until he seeks a much more potent painkiller: heroin.
“With each of these characters, you might look at them as your own peers and say, ‘that wouldn’t happen to them,’ or you might be one of them and say to yourself, ‘that wouldn’t happen to me,’” Hickly said. “But the truth is that it affects everybody in that way.”
The play was often humorous, talking about the quirks and anxieties of being a teenager. But it didn’t stray from the serious message. In one scene, Kyle, played by Kevin Moore, decided to mix alcohol with painkillers.
Each actor becomes a part of Kyle’s body—he’s the brain, there’s a heart, a liver, eyes and memory cells. Slowly, as the drugs and alcohol mix, each element begins to deteriorate. Kyle dies of an overdose.
Principal Doug Szokoly said exposing students to these realities is important, especially considering the number of people affected by the opioid crisis that walk his hallways each day.
”We’re trying to get the conversation started,” Szokoly said. “We care about this. It’s important and we do what we can to solve the problem.”
Szokoloy said he’s scheduled talks and presentations with the DEA and Federal Bureau of Investigations, as well as his own local police department, for each grade level.
After the presentation, a handful of students approached Battiste and described their own encounters with drug addiction. Battiste said for every two students that talk to him about their loved one, there are many more that don’t.
“But they leave with knowledge and they leave as ambassadors,” Battiste said. “They make educated decisions and they don’t accidentally fall into this dangerous addiction.”
In addition to the plays, Battiste said the DEA and other federal agencies hope to work with those most affected by the opioid crisis to offer the most information to the region, including multi-day summits and community dialogue.