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“You can never know it all”: Writer and Actor Mark Jeary discusses his play Blackout


Interview

The Artistic Director of New Room Theatre talks about his verbatim play exploring alcoholism and the road to recovery.

Image of “You can never know it all”: Writer and Actor Mark Jeary discusses his play Blackout
Image by Mihaela Bodlovic

[Blackout is] a hopeful story, a story of recovery. It addresses stereotypes – plays with them to some degree – and looks at the hope of recovery, but also [living] life on life’s terms during that. How shit things will still happen even when you’re sober, and it’s about how you deal with those without alcohol, because that is what a lot of us turn to.”

Until 13 years ago, Mark Jeary was one of those people who would turn to alcohol. A coping mechanism for many, alcohol is a drug that has and continues to ruin people’s lives all over the world – to the point that, for me, a drink can mean life or death. “You’re told to look from your left to your right – the person on the left in five years’ time will be drinking again, and the person on the right will be dead.”

The reality of recovering from alcoholism – the day-to-day struggles that so many people endure – is rarely depicted accurately within popular culture. Jeary wanted to change that:

“I saw people in recovery and alcoholics as really badly portrayed in the media. Usually, it was old men, sitting in a church hall, on the verge of a drink, and I knew it wasn’t like that. [At] a lot of the meetings I went to, the majority of people were women, and a lot of people in their 20-30s, and there was lots of laughter […] OK, so they were church halls. A lot of the time they’re full of joy, so I wanted to […] kind of redress that.”

So, Blackout was created. Comprised of interviews with recovering addicts at “different periods of sobriety – from somebody who was six months sober right the way to somebody who was 23 years sober”, it is a candid depiction of recovery, as well as the lucidity of those in recovery as the years go on. A verbatim play, all of the words spoken come from those interviewed by Jeary, as well as moments taken from Jeary’s own struggle with alcohol. When discussing the play, it is impossible not to touch upon Jeary’s own experiences. He is open about how dependent he once was, how it was constantly on his mind. Jeary’s frankness, his unflinching honesty about his addiction, reflects the style and tone of Blackout. Just five people onstage, the play becomes a dialogue between the characters and the audience. Some of the stories told will be hard to hear, others will seem unbelievable. It will show audiences a new side to alcohol dependency – how it can leave some people helpless. One story in particular (which Jeary admits is actually edited to make it more credible, because it sounded inconceivable to begin with), reveals the “absolute detachment from reality” and paranoia some addicts endure.

The impact of Jeary’s work in depicting recovery has led to Blackout receiving support from the Scottish Recovery Network and the Scottish Recovery Consortium. Speaking of his own experiences, Jeary talks fondly about the sense of community attending meetings gave him, the “physical relief” he would feel each time he went. Having somewhere to go, to offer a “gage” on your feelings, is still important for Jeary and his sobriety today. 13 years now sober, Jeary still has to “call his sponsor every day”, which he admits keeps him grounded and humble. “You never know it all” when it comes to recovery.

Despite the importance of meetings for Jeary himself, don’t expect to come and see people gathered around in a circle:

“There are a couple of bits where people say ‘meetings’, the ‘rooms’, ‘steps’, but we don’t talk about AA at all. One thing I was absolute on was that I didn’t want a scene around a table at any point in the play with us having a conversation, because they are individual stories. They are really conversations with the audience, one to one.”

While Blackout may have toured Scotland back in 2016, it is a very different show now to what it was then. This is partly thanks to its current director, Paul Brotherston. Over the past five years, four different people have directed Blackout; for Jeary, Brotherston “really got to the bottom of the stories, and made the stories sing”. Gone is the choreography and microphones from previous productions: what is left is a raw, stripped back production portrayed by a cast for whom Jeary has nothing but praise. Even for returning actors Miriam-Sarah Doren and Camille Marmié, Brotherston’s interpretation of the script has made them read it in a completely new light.

Change also comes in the form of a new character within the group. Upon discovering that Blackout had been selected to feature in Made in Scotland’s 2018 festival programme, Jeary felt it was important that the play have more diversity its stories and characters. Enter Houda Echouafni’s character, a Palestinian woman ten years into recovery. Her story charts her move to the UK: first to Scotland, where she discovered beer; then London, where she discovered whiskey – or, as Jeary puts it – “her new friend”. Of course, coming from a Muslim background means that for Echouafni’s character, friends are hard to come by when you’re an alcoholic – even within your own family. Echouafni’s story details this woman’s conflict with her family, “how her alcoholism destroyed her family to the point that her sister said that she wished she was dead, so at least the children wouldn’t know what was going on.”

Familial conflict is commonly linked to alcohol abuse. Many families broken apart by addiction fail to understand how their loved ones could behave in such a way. Blackout, however, with its stripped-back style and the lived experiences shared onstage, has connected with many audience members on a personal level. For Jeary, that is one of the show’s biggest achievements:

“I’m proud of the impact it has had, more than anything, and the audience members coming to talk to us afterwards who it’s really affected. Particularly friends and family of people who it’s affected, because they often […] don’t understand their children, and they see the show and they get it a bit more, because it’s more subjective. […] That has been really powerful, actually, because you know when people mean it.”

Of course, not everyone understands, and that can cause further conflict. Resentment plays a big role within Blackout: the bitterness people have towards addicts, as well the resentment those in recovery have toward others and the world. Jeary recalls what is a spot-on definition of resentment for him, stating it “is liking drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” The way it can eat away at an individual is a “big cause of relapse” in Jeary’s opinion. Perhaps it’s the inability to forget what your drinking has done to yourself and others. Blackout’s title represents that desire alcoholics can have to forget –one of Jeary’s friends admitted that would drink “actually trying to achieve a blackout”. While Jeary himself has never blacked out (a fact that has led to looks of distrust from others in recovery), it is a common occurrence amongst alcoholics. Another experience shared by those in recovery are “relapse dreams” – the alternative title for the play – where “you wake up and think you have been drinking […what’s worse] you haven’t picked up a drink, you’ve had one drink and you’re onto your second or third.”

You may wonder how a recovering alcoholic copes working at the Fringe, where it is likely that more pints poured than there are visitors. For the actors, the gruelling month of daily performances and publicising your work does mean that time can get away from you. For Jeary, there was not the time to go to meetings:

“I stopped going to meetings for a while – ironically, while I was doing Blackout at the Fringe – for that whole month […] It was awful.”

In spite of this, Jeary does have fond memories of recovery meetings during the Fringe:“What I miss – what I love – about the Edinburgh Fringe is the amount of people who go to meetings. All of a sudden, your local meetings are just full of foreigners – people from all over the world.”

Hopefully, the audiences will be just as packed this coming month when Blackout begins its run at Summerhall. As for the future? Jeary hopes to take Blackout abroad, continuing to develop the play as it ages. He may (finally) direct it himself, talking about his desire to curate a production of that will have everyone involved – the actors, director, costume designers even – drawing on their own personal experiences. He also hopes to address other types of addiction in future plays, working alongside some of the charities that have sponsored the Fringe production.

Through Blackout and his work, it is clear that Jeary wants to make a difference. His theatre company New Room Theatre recently announced that they had been able to secure tickets for recovering addicts to come and see Blackout,  hoping that they will find something positive to take away from the performance. The play has also been selected as a Fringe top-pick by a number of publications. Whatever happens at the Fringe, the future ahead looks bright.

Blackout runs 1-26 August (not 2, 8 13, or 20) at Summerhall (Old Lab)
Buy tickets here