‘There’s this magical performance that’s nothing to do with drugs’

As he retires, Mick Egan looks back at 30 years working with addicts in art and drama

One day in the 1990s, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg gave the actor and playwright Mick Egan the title for a play. Egan had introduced Ginsberg to the recovering addicts he was working with at Merchant's Quay, the drug addiction service-provider.

"I'd written to him in New York knowing he was coming here and I asked him to come in." So Ginsberg came and listened to their stories and told them about his friend William Burroughs, who was then, like many people in the room, on methadone.

One of the participants told a story in which he referred to being on “laughers”. Ginsberg said, “Wait, what are laughers?” The man explained that laughers were uppers and screamers were downers.

Ginsberg laughed and said: “Why don’t you call your play Laughers and Screamers.”

Egan has spent the better part of 30 years providing art and drama education to addicts. For the last 16 of these years he’s run Rade (Recovery through Arts and Drama Education) in the old OLV (Our Lady of Victories) building in Cathedral Court off New Street in Dublin 8. He id noe about to retire, which means Rade needs a new director, someone who knows how to wrangle funding and keep the show on the road.

Coming into Merchant's Quay for the first time, I probably felt like I was a posh guy or something

When I arrive to meet him, I walk into the wrong room and find film director Gary Boyd putting the cast of a Rodney Lee-penned version of The Beggar's Opera through its paces. They practice in an old room surrounded by wooden sculptures and illuminated by light from beautiful stained-glass windows created by Peter Young.

Jody Jones, a Rade alumnus who first came here in 2014 and now teaches acting here and helps with films like this, tells me his own story of moving from addiction into a life of acting and writing. "I was still drinking and taking coke at the start, but I was only here about three weeks when I got stuck into the play and pretty much stopped there and then." He's currently writing a screenplay.

As we go up the stairs to their main art room, Egan points out posters for some of Rade's films, performances, and exhibitions. There are posters for, among other things, a song cycle about the pharmacological industry created with the musician Sean Miller; an exhibition held in NCAD, and a "sort of raunchy" version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. "We included all the things Lady Gregory left out," says Egan.

City Workshop

He tells me about his own career. A Stillorgan-born early-school-leaver with hippy inclinations, he was cast by Jim Sheridan in One Bad Apple ("I was the bad apple") and toured the country.

“I hadn’t a notion about acting. I hadn’t a notion of drama. I’d never been to a play. But it was a buzz and I kind of found myself in it. I came across Peter [Jim Sheridan’s brother] and he invited me to come for an interview for City Workshop, a novel sort of community theatre group.”

Working with City Workshop led to Egan writing plays; one about heroin in the inner city, A Hape A’ Junk, travelled to the Royal Court Theatre in London.

When he started to teach drama to drug users in Merchant’s Quay in the 1990s, he says, he immediately “loved it”. He laughs.

“One day you’re kissing the ass of someone who’s going to give you a job selling Brennan’s bread, then you’re doing this stuff that really has impact. There’s just this magical performance that happens that’s nothing to do with drugs but maybe is to do with having known hard times. If you’re a writer, you just know the language is going to be very colourful in their mouths.

“Coming into Merchant’s Quay for the first time, I probably felt like I was a posh guy or something, but I was just completely welcomed and trusted.”

Egan taught drama with Merchant’s Quay for a few years. Later, he was involved with an ecologically-minded theatre company called Down to Earth. He did nixers as a carpenter. He got various acting roles. He had a part in the musical Blood Brothers. He got, in his words, “small parts in big shows or big parts in a show that nobody came to”.

Sixteen years ago he established Rade and “felt like I was home”. When they moved into the OLV building, formerly a school and youth club, it was due to be demolished and the windows were bricked up. They’ve always operated on a shoestring, he says. “One glance at this building and you see everything is kind of homemade. We didn’t get the designers in, it’s homely.”

Most of the participants are on Community Employment Schemes, although there’s also an HSE programme for people on disability benefit who want to see what it’s like. Rade doesn’t insist that the participants are completely drug free but they ask that they don’t turn up so affected they can’t work.

“A lot of people here might be early school-leavers and early drug users,” says Egan. “There are huge drug problems in wider society but the policeman with a drug problem or drink problem keeps it until the end of his shift. Same with the actor, same with the bishop. But if you were never taught that message and there was no goal to meet with sobriety, you don’t know that.”

Why does a programme like this appeal to them? Egan thinks for a moment. “For addicts, who are used to being a nuisance for their family, it’s being able to demonstrate to their families, their kids that they’re capable of being genuine contributors. It shows they’re stakeholders in society.”

There has been absolutely no trouble in 16 years, he says, because they have an emphasis, he says, “on mutual respect”. There’s only ever been one theft, when a computer being used as a film prop went missing. “Ah lads,” said Egan at the time. “The person who lent you the computer is a staff member and we all love her. Can we not get it back?” He came back after the weekend and found a duvet wrapped in plastic had been carefully lowered over the wall with a rope. The computer was inside. “Which is really touching. We never really knew who did it.”

It's been important for Egan that participants got to work with real practitioners. A list of talented writers, musicians and artists who have contributed here including Pom Boyd, Sean Miller, Paula Meehan, Karl Parkinson and Colm Keegan. And it's been rewarding for those artists too, he says. "When you work with people who have dependences on substances you see there are beautiful human beings inside there. And sometimes because they're at a very survival level, the generosity that comes out is really touching and the inclusiveness and kindness that's displayed is so cool."

Snobbery

Many of the participants are very talented. Egan feels there’s sometimes a bit of snobbery from arts institutions that stops them taking work from organisations such as Rade seriously.

“The same year we did A Hundred Years Ago [a show Egan wrote about the 1913 lockout in Dublin], the Abbey did The Risen People,” he says. “In the Abbey they’d put crayon on their teeth and they put on a bit of a fakie Dublin accent. And then we have [our actors] with no fake accent and with a lived-in understanding of what real poverty is. I always 100 per cent believed that I could get them up on any stage and they’d be as good as anybody.”

A lot of people have been through the programme now. As well as creating art and drama, they benefit from a therapeutic day every week where they talk about their issues and drug use. The staff at Rade often help sort out further training opportunities for them too, in the arts or elsewhere. The Gaiety School of Acting takes two Rade participants every year. The writer Stuart Carolan has been a supporter and a couple of Rade alumni were in his RTÉ drama Love/Hate. Jody Jones was in Taken Down – Carolan saw him in a Rodney Lee film called Irish Light Versus Tony and cast him without an audition.

“Sometimes you look at some of the old pictures around here and think. ‘Oh God he’s gone, and he’s gone’,” says Egan. “Some through addiction, some through things that are attached to their addiction.”

He points to a painting on the wall. "That was by Lavinia Kennedy. I knew her as a client in Merchant's Quay when I worked there first. Years later, she turned up here. She had lost the use of her arm. So she was drawing with her left arm. That was a picture of her apartment."

But many more of them do very well.

“I meet them on the street, and they’re completely clean and are living very productive lives.” Sometimes he jokes with them. “I say, ‘You were always stoned in Rade and now that you’re out you get clean!’ But sometimes people just need a lift. Then they can look over the wall and get their respect back.”

To find out more about Rade and see some of its films, go to rade.ie