SAN DIEGO — By the end of the play every child in the room knew the only word that would defeat the dragon of the Land of Deception.
When the 10-year-old hero--a curly-haired, likable "new kid in town" portrayed by adult actor Robert Duckett--finally confronted the drug-pushing dragon, the Kimball Elementary auditorium quickly filled with encouraging shouts of the magic word: "NO!"
That resounding "no" to drugs and alcohol is the hope and dream of the Dragons Project, a substance abuse prevention program initiated by Lamb's Players Theatre in cooperation with Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation.
Lamb's Players conducted a long search for the right scripts to tackle this epidemic problem among young people. They held out for sensitive plays that wouldn't turn kids off with the wrong tone. Artistic director Robert Smyth found exactly that in Pennsylvania, where the Saltworks Theatre Company of Pittsburgh, in collaboration with the St. Francis Medical Center, was producing two plays written by Gillette Elvgren.
The one that so captivated a recent Kimball Elementary audience, "Say No, Max," uses a rock 'n' roll score, humor, plenty of action, imagination, audience participation and a confident knowledge of how kids think to reach its young target.
"I Am the Brother of Dragons," which won a McEachern Award in 1984 for "outstanding contribution to education," also leans heavily on entertainment to connect with junior high and high school audiences. But "Dragons" delves a little more deeply into the real traumas of chemical addiction, which affect victim and family alike.
To obtain production rights to the two plays, Lamb's Players was required to work with a treatment center that uses a 12-step approach (similar to that used by Alcoholics Anonymous) and provides family counseling.
Scripps' Alcohol/Chemical Dependency Program met those requirements. Training by Scripps' program manager, Bill Carrigan--who is teaching the four actors and two directors of the Dragons Project everything they never really wanted to know about substance abuse--was donated.
Both plays can be booked, separately or in repertory, by schools, parent groups, community organizations, hospitals, treatment centers or other concerned groups. After each performance, the newly trained cast members field audience questions about chemical abuse and distribute information on counseling and treatment sources.
Berry Elementary School will sponsor a free public performance of the two plays tonight, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
"You can't win the war by treating the victims, and that's basically what we're doing" at Scripps, Carrigan explained. He sees the Lamb's Players project as a wonderful way to reach young people before they become victims (primary prevention), or to help them to recognize the problem in its early stages, implanting the desire and knowledge to seek help (secondary prevention).
" 'Say No, Max' . . . goes against the values that have been perpetrated through most of society, that drugs are cool, that you're part of the 'in' crowd if you use (them)," Carrigan said. He thinks the play will show kids how "they can say no and . . . feel good about it."
Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who directs "Max," pointed to dismal statistics that show an increase in drug and alcohol abuse among young people.
"There was just a recent poll taken . . . that 100,000 9-year-olds get drunk once a week," she said. "What these shows are doing is showing that there's another alternative, you don't have to drink and you don't have to take drugs.
"By the end of ('Max') . . . you realize that the people in the (chemically influenced) Land of Delusion are terribly unhappy, but they keep covering up with, 'Oh I feel fine, I feel fine, let me take a drink, then I'm fine.' Max ends up saying, 'You say . . . the only good feeling is feeling good, and yet you feel nothing!' "
The play uses color, sound and character identification to get its message across. As Max, Duckett talks directly to the audience, making sure they can relate to how he feels being the newcomer, the kid confronted with a smoking, drinking, drug-taking "initiation" ritual.
Duckett's skill as an actor, and that of fellow cast members Vanda Thompson, Janine Zeller and Mark Coterill, makes the Dragons Project something special among educational efforts. It is not an amateur endeavor. It is professional theater backed by Lamb's Players 15 years of touring expertise. The proof of its success was visible last week on the youthful faces of the "Say No, Max" audience--the toughest kind of audience to please.
According to director Rick Parker, "I Am the Brother of Dragons" gets to its older audience because it doesn't pull any punches.
"It's pretty brutal," he said, "especially, the language gets kind of difficult, partially because we're trying to show reality, trying to show some kids that have really messed up their lives on drugs and what happens to their families."
The play's four-letter words are something of a departure for the Christian troupe, but Parker has no hesitation about their necessity. "When . . . you're trying to represent reality to a bunch of kids, you know, if you don't use some of their own language, they're just not going to stay with you."
He said "Dragons" will appeal "even to kids who are on drugs watching the show" because of the many extremely theatrical scenes it employs. For instance, one scene incorporates a game show called "Stash the Trash" or "Pack the Crack," which makes fun, but ultimately delivers a powerful message about the loss of personality to drugs and alcohol.
The Dragons Project is designed to show young people that they have a choice, there are alternatives. Bill Carrigan describes this as the ultimate solution to substance abuse, when people deal with life's problems in "more healthy ways--exercise, meditation, things that are lasting in a positive way, rather than things that will end up as a crutch."