Rockston Stories, an addictive cabaret.
“I was once asked why I had started the company. I remember mumbling a few superficial words. Then I got real. My addiction to drugs nearly killed me. My involvement with theatre and drama saved my life. I started The Outside Edge Theatre Company in the hope that other lives might be saved too.”
Phil Fox, artistic director and founder of Outside Edge. (1959-2014)
I’m sitting in a café on Hoxton Street, having a coffee with the actor Mark Rylance, we have a few minutes to kill before this afternoon’s matinee performance begins and we are enthusiastically discussing our own stories of the ‘therapeutic value’ we have both experienced as a result of overcoming the ‘fear’ that can seem all-prevailing, prior to taking the stage.
See what I did there? I just shoehorned my own limited theatrical endeavours into the same sentence as an actor, The Guardian (amongst many others) describes as “The greatest actor of his generation”.
Rylance delivered 420 performances of Jerusalem alone, so when he told me he ‘understood’ my own process through 30 nights of my own show last year, I could only smile and mumble a rather humbling “Thank you, shall we go and take our seats? It’s show-time”.
“Well, you are looking really well today Simon, I was a bit concerned when I saw your show, you looked a bit frazzled.”
Oh stop it already!
We finish our coffee and exit, (stage left.)
Hoxton Hall was built in 1863, the local area at that time being described thus;
“The city and its surrounding areas, such as Shoreditch, became dirty, noisy and overcrowded. The middle class fled the disease and immorality they associated with the poor and the overcrowded city. “
So definitely no hipsters with Macbooks, ridiculous beards and tattoos drinking over-priced soya-lattes in the area back then; Jack the Ripper had not begun his murderous assault on the impoverished women of the area, a half-pint of gin cost two old pence. If you had some money, you could rent a house for the not inconsiderable sum of £100 a year if you were not one of the ‘middle-classes’ who had decided to flee toward a more ‘respectable’ area such as Stoke-Newington. History teaches us much, not least that it has a habit of repeating itself eh?
Building a theatre in Hoxton, was an attempt to create a place where the local community could perhaps, come together and escape the “disease and immorality” surrounding them for a few hours, (or perhaps partake of it inside rather than out on the streets?) Sadly the authorities disagreed and it lost its performance licence in 1871 due to complaints by the police and paradoxically became home to a temperance society for many years until, in yet another ironic twist in its story, it became a centre for adult learning in the hope it might help its scholars escape the areas unrelenting poverty.
So, the story of this particular venue is perhaps, the initial great promise of escape from reality, over-indulgence by its clientele, leading to an intervention, followed by the call to sobriety and ultimately the opportunity to better oneself through ongoing support and the re-kindling of forgotten dreams.
I think this seems like the perfect juncture to meet some of the cast of the current show.
“I’d been drinking for 20 years, I started really young, I used drink to wean me off drugs, but the drinking got worse when I put the drugs down, the drink was my medicine.”
I’m talking to Charon Bourke who plays Aphrodite in the show, the minute she ‘welcomes’ us to the story, we are drawn in by an her, there is an almost androgynous menace to her onstage presence that commands our attention.
“With the drugs, it became apparent, I remember thinking, this is it..I’m gonna die here.”
Charon is our conductor as we begin the dance of deception and dishonesty, denial and collusion contained within the script. The ‘redemption’ is of course, entirely due to the fact that the entire cast are in recovery themselves. The show was initially devised by Phil Fox prior to his tragic, untimely death last year, I have no doubt he would have been delighted with what the cast and crew have created.
“As an actor, when I was drinking, I never felt more comfortable than when I was playing a part, because I didn’t have a clue who I was, never stayed still long enough to find out, numbed it all out.”
I asked her about her journey into recovery.
“I’d had a brief period of abstinence, went to AA sat at the back in meetings, didn’t want to be there, soon enough I started drinking again, but, the seed had been planted, my denial had been cracked, so after that, it’s like a vessel, if there’s a crack and you keep putting liquid in there, it’s gonna widen and widen, until it falls apart, the denial falls apart.”
I have a theory, based on my own experience in addiction that much of what consumes ‘us’ as addicts/alcoholics, is our ongoing and ever more desperate attempts to avoid ‘fear’. When you wake up each morning with a raging drug habit or the brutal, calloused hands of alcoholism strangling the life from you, there is a particular terror that prevails.
“When I went back to AA, I had that ‘gift of desperation’ they talk about, it’s a great motivator.”
If someone tells you, they’re not nervous or scared before they go onstage, they’re fucking lying right?
“Or they’re not ‘there’, not present.”
SM; So, in recovery, as performers, we know this, we know what’s gonna happen right, yet we sign up for it, willingly, so what’s changed?
CB: Choice, I have a choice, I’m ‘here’, I’m responsible, present, I was always on the run before.”
SM: And of course, when we’re on that stage, there’s nowhere to hide right?
CB: Correct, but you know, to me, it does feel like a spiritual thing up there, I’m not talking religion, I mean, recovery has changed my life, it’s changed the way I connect with people.”
SM: Because when we are performing, it’s about being honest yeah? Acting isn’t really ‘pretending’ in that sense, it’s actually about being honest.
CB: Exactly, it’s ‘truth’, I used to think, that if I got sober, I’d be boring, as an ‘artist’, I’d lose an edge or something. I was wrong of course. In recovery, I’ve learnt to be ‘still’. I’ll never forget the first review I got, in sobriety, it said;
“It’s so lovely to see this actress grow-up, she has a stillness that’s rare in this industry.”
My impression of watching Charon as an actress in this show, is that, the ‘stillness’ she talks about developing, as a result of her ongoing recovery, gives her the command of both character and stage so apparent to those of us in the audience tonight.
The next member of the cast I talk to, tells me a little about how he came into the theatre company.
“Hello Simon, my names Shiv, I’m in recovery from long-term Heroin and crack addiction, basically two years ago I was in a detox unit when someone from Outside Edge, who is also in recovery, came into the unit to talk to the residents about the company. I was one day clean, on the same day; a recovering addict from Narcotics Anonymous also came in to talk to us”
I’m guessing joining a drama course wasn’t at the forefront of your mind at that particular juncture?”
“Ha ha, no, I’d never done any sort of acting in my life, but both these people had a massive impact on my life, I couldn’t see it at the time of course. I’d applied for funding to go to rehab, but had been refused, so I had a lot of time on my hands when I left the detox. I was still living in the same area I’d used drugs in, I couldn’t hang out with my old acquaintances so after a couple of weeks, I thought, fuck it, I’ll go along to that drama thing.”
“So were those early days hard, being in that environment with all the temptation and past associations?”
“Yeah, but I was accessing the local support services, going to meetings, but still, there was a lot of time to fill, I’d never had any sort of hobby before, I’d been using drugs from a very young age, so I thought I’d give this a go. For the two hours on a Thursday when I was there, I wasn’t thinking about drugs and all that other stuff, so I kept on going, I really started to enjoy it. After a while, I met Phil Fox who asked me if I’d like to join the Tuesday group, which was slightly different from the Thursday one, insomuch as it was a group that worked toward a certain goal, putting on a show, rather than the basic introductory course on Thursdays. I was 40 years old, I’d never seen a play in my life, but with Phil’s support and that of the rest of the people there, I did my first performance a few months later.”
I’m interested in the ‘dialogue’ going on in your head, prior to performing, what, if any, was the struggle there, for you?
“Fear man, fear, I’ll tell you honestly, a few weeks before the first show I was thinking to myself, I’m not gonna do it, I’m not going to stand up and make a fool of myself, you know? But Phil and all the others were so supportive. It’s mad isn’t it? When I took time to reflect on all the crazy stuff I did in active addiction, but kinda had to just do whatever was required back then. When I was out on the street, or in front of a judge, I was acting ay bloody arse off ha-ha, So, In recovery and certainly with the help of Outside Edge, I learnt to push through the fear, you know, just do it, it’ll be ok.”
My own experience of working together with Outside Edge was exactly the same, I know how I felt after taking the applause on the first night of my show, how was it for you?
“There’s an inner glow, I have to say the feeling I got was better than any drug I ever took, I mean that. Through the confidence I’ve developed through doing this, it’s helped me in so many other areas. I’ve got a job I’d never thought I’d be able to get, I stand up in front of people at Public Health England and deliver groups, it’s amazing.”
Thanks for talking to me Shiv.
The members of Outside Edge are a varied bunch insomuch as while ultimately they all stand and take the applause together, their individual journeys to the fully-deserved recognition from an audience on its feet at the end of each show all started from very different places. Different countries, different decades but with the common thread addiction and recovery that eventually brought them all here.
There’s an old adage about alcoholism that states,
“It’s an equal-opportunities ‘employer’; it doesn’t care where it captures you, Park Lane or park bench”
I’m talking to Liam Quinn, a softly-spoken Irishman who has that innate Celtic ability of story-telling and he delivers one of the funniest tales in the show. He reminds me of the Irish comedian Dave Allen with more swearing, he’s brilliant!
“I’d tried everything to try and stop using drink and drugs for years, nothing worked. Eventually, about 11 years ago I decided to try an in-patient detox. I had my last two massive lines of cocaine, finished off a half litre of vodka, a huge bottle of cider, two joints, then made my way up the detox, as one does, they didn’t have to give me any meds for two days!. Anyway, I got through that, did a day program and after a few weeks, it dawned on me, that I couldn’t carry on blaming the world for my problems, I realised that I was the problem. Once I realised that, things started to get easier. During the day program, Phil Fox and Outside Edge came and did a show for us, I was flabbergasted. The show involved audience participation, I stuck my hand up and I guess, from that point onwards, I was involved and that was it. Within six weeks, I was performing on that stage, in front of the next group from the day-program I’d just finished. I’ve been asked this before and I’ll say it again, I’m not saying I couldn’t have handled my recovery without Outside Edge, BUT, it was a good 50% of the help and support I needed.”
Thanks for talking to me Liam.
I had the opportunity to speak to several other members of the cast who, despite their various social/cultural backgrounds all said something very similar when interviewed. Due to my own personal experiences, I was not surprised to hear everyone I spoke to talk about a sense of ‘belonging’ that being part of Outside Edge has given them. As it is in ‘recovery’ different ‘things’ work for different people, however It seems that for anyone seeking a sense of belonging with like-minded people who’ve trodden the often, lonely and demoralising path of addiction, The Outside Edge Theatre Company offers the opportunity for anyone, regardless of where they ‘come from’ to perhaps, for the first time in a very long time, to experience a sense of real purpose. You get to join the cool kids, the best gang in town, for me it was better than my childhood dreams of being in The Jam or The Clash! It’s therapeutic tribalism! Admittedly, it’s a pretty colourful and whacky tribe, but I should imagine, that wherever his soul currently resides, Phil fox would thoroughly approve, his legacy continues, he was quite whacky and colourful himself! He’s sadly missed.