New Room Theatre’s Blackout, which has been touring around Scotland, is a brilliant example of how theatre can be used to give exposure to an issue, to inform and to entertain simultaneously. A verbatim piece exploring alcoholism, Blackout takes its audience through the journey of real individuals, from the original thrill of first drinks, through to blackouts and hitting rock bottom, and then the struggle of recovery. It was consistently engaging, which is an amazing feat for a piece comprised almost entirely of monologues.
Five actors were on stage almost the entire time. They were diverse, three women and two men, of different ages, accents and representing people of very different persuasions with unrelated things that led them to drinking. They remained unnamed and are listed in the program as ‘8 Years’, ‘Newcomer’, ‘1 Year’ and so on. The casting and the stories told showed that anyone can become an alcoholic, and this went nicely in contrast to the opening discussion of what the typical image of an alcoholic is. All dressed very normally aside from bare feet, there was no excess in characterisation whatsoever. It felt as if you were watching actual people tell their stories, in an Alcoholics Anonymous session perhaps.
Simple and intimately staged, the audience sat around three sides of a white square on the ground, a few metres in length, with five microphones laid out on it. These were the only props used in the performance, which clearly shows the emphasis on speech, honesty and almost a sense of confession, but without judgement. The white square would light up and go dark and there was no other lighting. This black and white aesthetic also highlighted the honest nature of the performance.
The speech was comprised of a mixture of individual monologues where one of the characters would speak for an extended amount of time, then a detached voice over and a more stylised monologue style where the individuals would each chip into a wider discussion. Not quite speaking directly to one another but always managing to direct their words to the audience. In this way the performance felt incredibly outward facing and seemed dedicated to helping the understanding of its audience members. The natural transitions between specific people speaking and the group discussion, with the different characters even finishing each other’s sentences at points, gave a sense of both the significance of the individuals’ journeys and the universalities of their experiences. And while being a brilliant trait of any piece of art on a more abstract level, this also reflects the benefits of group discussion based recovery programs. To realise that you are valued as an individual, while knowing you are not alone in your struggle, seems to be one of the most important things for anyone struggling with mental health or addiction.
Blackout followed a chronological structure through the experience of alcoholism. It started with a very candid look at the initial relief alcohol gave, from granting the confidence to make friends to giving a sense of purpose. There was discussion around the impact of alcoholic family members in families. There was then a brutally honest account of what they were like and some of the things they did in the midst of full alcoholism, discussions of blackouts and waking up with no recollection of the events of the night before or coming to in the middle of a conversation. Sex, drugs and urination were all covered in a frank and sensitive and often amusing manner. After a few of the characters recalled some of their lowest points they all revealed the moment they knew things had to change. After that they talked about the painful road to recovery, dotted with relapses and the struggle of dealing with the gap that giving up alcohol left behind, new thoughts it led to about whether there is a higher power and how the twelve step program helped them. Throughout, particular anecdotes were shared, from suicide attempts and child abuse to being fired for drawing Harry Potter glasses on a customer while working at a make-up counter. The stories could not have been anything but verbatim, too true to possibly sound invented or ingenuine.
The unassuming beauty of the staging, including the image of microphone wires crossing over one another and the actors being close enough to the audience to look into their eyes as they spoke, perfectly set the atmosphere. The sensitively balanced tone, with honest humour sandwiched between tales of extreme embarrassment and pain, described human experience with wonderful accuracy. Although this style of theatre is not for everyone, and would likely not be enjoyed as much by those more inclined towards visual storytelling, it was an extremely powerful piece of verbatim theatre. The audience were given an invaluable insight and were likely left feeling more open and with a greater understanding.