KENOSHA — Sometimes art serves to not only inspire and evoke an emotional response, but to educate.
The Carthage College Theatre Department play “Up and Away” has educated its actors and audience members about the tragic reality of opioid addiction.
“The play just draws you in, and you like these characters so much and then it kind of punches you in the stomach and it’s heartbreaking,” said director and Theatre Deparment Chair Herschel Kruger.
The play is set in rural Wisconsin and follows Madison and her best friend Clara. The young women seek to escape their impoverished lives through YouTube stardom, but soon get caught up in the world of opioid addiction.
“Up and Away” is the 10th new work commissioned for the college through its New Play Initiative, which brings a show for students to premiere each year. This year’s play was written by Eric Simonson, who has written for Broadway shows and is a writer and producer on two Amazon originals, “The Man in the High Castle” and “Homecoming.”
The play was a merger of ideas from Simonson and Kruger, who said within the past few years he’s known several young men and women in southeastern Wisconsin who died from opioid overdoses.
But Kruger added that drug abuse and addiction are not the show’s only focus.
“It’s a play about our dreams, as young people, how we dream and how fragile they are,” he said.
Rachel Proite, a senior theater and education major at Carthage who plays Clara, said the biggest challenge for her when taking on this role was understanding the situation her character was in.
“I came from a very sheltered lifestyle,” she said. “I grew up in a bubble.”
The subject matter was eye-opening to her.
Both Proite and Ben Braun, who plays Trey, Madison’s love interest, talked with people who’ve seen opioid addiction up close in preparation for their roles. During that preparation, two mothers who lost their sons to heroin overdoses spoke to the cast about that experience.
“It made it all the more human to me and all the more real,” Proite said. “I think that was the most impactful thing. It was heartbreaking.”
Braun traveled to Milwaukee to speak with veterans who struggle with addiction, and said he learned how to better research an acting role when prepping for the play.
“I made it a point to talk to people who are suffering from that and going through recovery,” he said. “That really helped me get into the mindset and the behavior that occurs over time with this disease and that was incredibly helpful to me.”
Carthage students first performed “Up and Away” for one week on campus in November. The play was one of six chosen to be performed at the Region 3 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival in Madison last week and could win a national award, the winners of which will be announced in March.
After each local performance, the Theater Department hosted talk-back sessions featuring the cast along with two community guests, including mental health workers, substance abuse counselors, and recovering addicts who work as counselors from the Racine, Kenosha or Milwaukee area.
After almost every performance, Kruger said someone from the audience thanked the cast for doing the play and said they’d lost a loved one to addiction, or knew someone who’s struggling with it.
“You never know who’s in the audience,” Kruger said.
Kruger also invited Debbie Ruber, a health educator for Kenosha County, to train cast members in the use of Narcan, a drug that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose. Ruber traveled to Madison last week to do Narcan training at the festival as well.
Braun said he hopes that audiences walked away from the play with a sense of hope.
“You can make a difference through your own care and giving your own love to people who really need it,” he said.
Proite, who will be student teaching at two Kenosha high schools next semester, said she learned from “Up and Away” that opioid addiction can happen to anyone.
Kruger said that this year, students have not only learned about opioid addition, but have grown in their art form and discovered art’s power to teach and heal.
“Our students have the opportunity, because they’ve been through Narcan training, to maybe save somebody’s life,” Kruger said.
Students plan to reprise their roles in “Up and Away” this summer, during a three-week run at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in Scotland.
“Our students have the opportunity, because they’ve been through Narcan training, to maybe save somebody’s life.” Herschel Kruger, director of “Up and Away”