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In the battle against opioid addiction, Jamestown church tries new approach – theater

Drugs and the opioid epidemic are an ongoing burden in Western New York, with continuous efforts being made through education, medical treatment, and government agencies. But a church in Jamestown is trying a different approach to dealing with this very real crisis.

If you ask Steven Cobb, he’ll tell you that many people in the Jamestown community look at people affected by drug use in a negative way. They see them as users, sellers, and lawbreakers. But Cobb is hoping to change that through unconventional means.

Cobb describes himself as a person in long-term recovery. Originally from Jamestown, he left when he was 18, ending up in New York City’s theater industry and becoming addicted to crystal meth.

“I had to end up back here in Jamestown to recover,” explained Cobb. “And the only way I was able to recover in this community was to begin to share my story of recovery with the people in this community.”

Cobb began sharing in recovery programs, but soon realized there was more purpose to his sobriety. He wanted to take his tale into the broader community, so he connected with Luke Fodor, the Rector at Saint Luke's Episcopal Church, because – as Fodor reminds us – the church is in the storytelling business.

“Story was going to be the only way to really solve this really difficult, complex problem,” said Fodor. “Science has shown that when we listen to stories, we actually are drug addicts – that positive dopamine is released in our brains when we listen to story.”

Fodor asked Cobb to share his story from the pulpit one Sunday morning during a week that had been darkened by numerous lives being lost to drug addiction. It was an eye-opening experience for the community, and a catalyst for Cobb and Fodor’s next step.

With the help of playwright Richard Olson-Walter, the trio created a play called “Least Resistance.”

“We kind of thought that maybe theater would be the way that we could reach out to these people,” recalled Cobb. “And we think we’re kind of unique in that area, because we’re not really aware of anyone else who’s tried to use theater to reach out to develop community support and to directly influence recovery.”

Expecting a non-conventional audience, they wanted to ensure “Least Resistance” brought a mixture of different approaches and styles to the stage. Olson-Walter based the play on interviews and testimonials from real people touched by drug abuse – using their own words and perspectives to show that anyone can be impacted.

“The stories that we’re presenting are not just the stories of people in recovery or who have relapsed into addiction, but it’s also their families – people who have lost a loved one, or maybe even people who are raising their grandkids because their child has lost custody or is incarcerated,” said Olson-Walter.

The play will take place on the proscenium stage of the Willow Bay Theater, but with a setup designed for intimacy. It’s a fast-paced experience, according to Cobb, and even includes non-traditional elements like slam-style poetry and acoustic music.

Fodor hopes “Least Resistance” will open up a place where people can be vulnerable and talk about the story.

“Instead of it being a situation in which people point fingers, that instead, they’re extending their hands to kind of understand the story and to get more engaged with those who suffer, and that they can find ways of really connecting,” said Fodor.

Even before the play has begun, talks are already ongoing to bring “Least Resistance” to stages in Buffalo and Amherst. Fodor said the next goal is that other communities – even outside Western New York – might use it for their own recovery.

“Least Resistance” premieres April 28 and 29 at 7:30 p.m. at Jamestown’s Willow Bay Theatre. A second run takes place May 5 and 6. Tickets and more information is available at leastresistance.org.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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