Theater as addiction therapy in ‘Bliss Point’


The healing power of theater underlies the collaboration between the Cornerstone Theater Company and rehabilitation centers around the city, which resulted in the company’s production of “Bliss Point,” a play about addiction and recovery, through June 22 at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles.

Playwright Shishir Kurup’s research included conducting interviews with residents of various recovery facilities, including Beit T’Shuvah (“House of Return”). 

Tricia Nykin, who had organized several acting workshops while a resident at Beit T’Shuvah, was heavily involved in the play’s development process, working with the playwright and Cornerstone, and she ultimately arranged for a reading for the Beit T’Shuvah residents.

“I wanted to get feedback as to the legitimacy of the script,” Nykin said.

The play focuses on two divergent scenarios that merge unexpectedly at the end. One concerns an addict whose friends come to get high with him in celebration of his birthday. Eventually, a particularly devastating event causes him to crash. The other scenario follows an East Indian journalist who is caring for his sick mother and also interviewing addicts at a treatment center for an article in a major magazine. 

One of the addicts telling her story to the journalist is played by Nykin, who is one of five cast members from Beit T’Shuvah, most of them with little acting experience. In fact, Nykin, who has been a professional actor since childhood and has a bachelor’s degree in theater, is one of only a few professionals in the 15-character play. 

She is also a heroin addict who came to Beit T’Shuvah almost a year ago as a “court commit.”  

“I eventually started selling heroin, and I got caught a lot,” Nykin said. “I got raided three times, and I went to jail, in and out, in and out, about seven times over the course of a year and a half. And then, on March 11, 2013, I went to jail for the last time.  

“The court and my probation [officer] decided they were not going to let me out. So, I was stuck, and I was really forced to look at myself, and it was miserable, it was difficult. And thank God for that, because it gave me the gift of desperation and enabled me to see that I felt freer in those four tiny walls in a cell than I did in the real world. That’s what made me want to change.”

Her grandmother read about Beit T’Shuvah, and her mother eventually got her alternatively sentenced to the center. She was immediately cast in a play the facility produces periodically, and she slowly began establishing a theater program.  

Now sober, Nykin moved out of the treatment residence about five weeks ago into a house where many Beit T’Shuvah staff members reside. She is employed as the managing director of the facility’s theater department.

Jared Ross, another resident who is part of the “Bliss Point” cast, said his own recovery, as well as the play itself, has helped him find a passion for learning and growing again. He said that, as an artist himself who draws, paints and sculpts, he particularly relates to the character he plays, whose artwork is exhibited in the Whitney Museum.

“But, also, [there’s] the dark side of this character — he’s been an IV drug user, which is something that I’ve battled since I was 16. 

“But he does come to a place of revelation, of wanting to survive, to really get his name out there and make it as an artist. And, just like with myself, for that to even have a shot at happening, I have to put the drugs down.”

In order to “put the drugs down,” Beit T’Shuvah residents are required to go to therapy and meet with their counselor every week, as well as a spiritual adviser every week, and go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night.  In addition, both Jewish and non-Jewish residents must attend Torah study every morning and services every Friday night and Saturday morning.

There are also adjunct, voluntary programs, such as music, yoga, mindfulness meditation, creative writing, surf therapy and, of course, theater, which the center’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, believes is therapeutic in that it allows addicts to tell their story and the stories of other people.

“They can see themselves in other characters,” he said, “so it helps them get out of their own self-obsession. It helps them have empathy with other characters, other people. It also creates a community within the community. They know that their success, and the success of the project, is dependent upon everyone working together, so it gets them to be part of something instead of separate from everyone. Plus, they have a great deal of fun and camaraderie.”

The rabbi would like audiences who see “Bliss Point” to come away with an appreciation for the power of recovery and of redemption, “and to see themselves in the cast members,” he said, “so they start to realize that it’s not ‘those people,’ but it’s us.”

 

“Bliss Point” is at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, June 5-22. Performances are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets, call (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2. For group tickets, email aescalante@cornerstonetheater.org. Pay-what-you-can: Suggested donation is $20.

A Mensh on the radiowaves to recovery


One afternoon in 1989, Ricky Leigh Mensh hid out in his car in a parking garage in Bethesda, Md., paranoid after a five-day cocaine and booze spree.

“I had experienced so many consequences as a result of my addictions,” Mensh, now 48 — and 19 years sober — said as he prepared to debut his syndicated “Recovery Radio Live” program on KLSX 97.1 Free FM this week. “I had been in and out of jail, broken bones while drunk, broken my nose several times in bar fights — even had developed gout. I had become so paranoid after 13 years of using that I would lock myself in my townhouse and not come out for days.”

Mensh had not slept for five days on that afternoon in 1989 when he realized he was “a cadaver waiting to happen” and phoned his grandmother from a pay phone for help. Forty-eight hours after that “moment of clarity,” he said, he checked into a rehabilitation center and has been sober since.

He went on to become a prominent music industry executive and a voting member of the Grammy Awards — and now he is hoping to offer addicts moments of clarity similar to his own with his “Recovery” program, which premiered locally this week and will continue to air Saturdays from 11 p.m. to midnight on KLSX.

“The show is designed to feel like a 12-step recovery meeting on the air,” Mensh said from his home base in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Our primary goal is to reach out to those who are still [using], as well as to people in recovery, their friends, families and co-workers.”

Mensh acts as the show’s brash, charismatic host and says he studied past and present recovery shows while developing his unique format. His polished but personable program includes interviews with medical experts, such as Dr. Drew Pinsky (“Celebrity Rehab”); celebrity recovering addicts like bassist Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue; drug-related comedy bits; music inspired by addiction and treatment (think Aerosmith’s “What It Takes”); conference-calling listeners to share stories; and scholarship giveaways to the C.A.R.E. 30-day treatment program in North Palm Beach, Fla. (the regular price tag: $22,000).

Pinsky has lauded the show as “the embodiment of recovery” and as a powerful example of the way the media can be used to transmit the message of recovery.

On the air, Mensh often shares parts of his own story, which began as he grew up in and around Washington, D.C., attending his maternal grandparents’ Orthodox synagogue.

“But unfortunately, my mother married not one but two violent men,” he said of his father and former stepfather; beatings and severe emotional abuse were de rigueur. Two days after Mensh graduated high school, he found his suitcase packed in the living room along with a note that read, “Get the f— out.”

He fled to the efficiency apartment he had already rented for the summer and was showering the next morning when a roommate offered him a lit bong through the shower curtain.

“I took my first hit, and it filled the black hole inside of me that all addicts feel,” he recalled. “It set me free from all my anger, and made me feel more comfortable in my own skin.”

Over the next 13 years, Mensh snorted cocaine (sometimes off the turntables at his disc jockey gigs), added acid and Quaaludes to the mix, and imbibed to the point that he blacked out, only to awaken in a ditch or a stranger’s car or bed. Although he managed to hold down radio jobs and even to found several profitable businesses during those years, his disease eventually spiraled out of control. In 1989, Mensh’s therapist, who had also treated John Belushi, told him that the only difference between Mensh and the late comedian was that Belushi “was dead, and you aren’t yet.”

His first day of sobriety was March 25, 1989.

Cut to August 2007, when Mensh — who by then had been voted one of the 30 most influential people in music by Source magazine — was mortified by a tabloid TV show about celebrity addicts such as Britney Spears.

“The shows were ridiculing these people, whom I see as sick, as fodder for their revenue,” he recalled. He also perceived that stars like Spears were using (or encouraged to use) “recovery” as a way to gain publicity for their latest albums or films.

“The tabloid media was bastardizing our beloved 12-step programs, and I wanted to do something to portray them in a positive light,” he said.

The result was “Recovery Radio,” which got its start on a Palm Beach station and is now in multiple markets. The show is expanding to include other kinds of addictions (on Super Bowl Sunday, the topic was gambling, for example). And plans are in the works to do live shows from Los Angeles — such as broadcasting from a 12-step meeting in a federal prison — and in other cities.

“As a Jew, it’s important to me to reach out to other Jews,” Mensh said. He cites the perception within the Jewish community that Jews don’t tend to be addicts, which “made me feel like even more of a schmuck while I was in rehab. There’s also the idea that Jews are too smart to abuse drugs and alcohol, which is part of the B.S. I told myself to keep me in denial while I was using.”

“We want to reach out to people who are still sick and suffering, whomever they may be,” he added.