Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

OT professor’s research: theater vs. addiction

Altered logo

Collaborating on play helps participants see beyond substance abuse

News coverage:
Indianapolis Star

Involvement in theater programs can help substance abusers break the patterns of thought that feed their addictions, a UIndy professor’s research indicates.


The evidence will be on stage June 3 and 4 when Dr. Sally Wasmuth and the School of Occupational Therapy present Altered, a play in which the key actors are six men and women recovering from substance abuse disorders. Each performance begins at 7 p.m. in Studio Theatre on the lower level of UIndy’s Esch Hall. Admission is free, and tickets can be reserved at this link.

The one-hour production is the culmination of a six-week occupational therapy intervention program conducted in partnership with Fairbanks Alcohol & Drug Treatment Recovery Center.

“When someone is using drugs on a regular basis, that becomes an occupation for them,” Wasmuth said. “The idea behind this research is that they need other occupations to structure their time.”

The process of developing and presenting a theater production makes a great alternative occupation, she said, because it can counteract many of the factors involved in addiction, including the drive for instant gratification, the social stigma, the alienation from loved ones and the loss of self-esteem.

Altered, written by Indianapolis playwright Ben Asaykwee for use in Wasmuth’s research, reimagines themes from classical Greek and Roman literature to explore the human condition. Each performance will be followed by a 15-minute talk-back session between the actors and the audience. UIndy’s Department of Theatre is assisting with the production.

Wasmuth has presented the play before with a cast of military veterans who were battling addiction issues, but this is the first with non-veterans. She, local theater director Gari Williams and professional actress Lauren Briggeman have been working with the current participants for the past six weeks, meeting three times a week for three hours each time, which is a typical format for traditional outpatient treatment programs.

The rehearsals create a sense of mutual responsibility among the participants, Wasmuth said, and the performances give them an opportunity to receive positive recognition from family, friends and the community.

“With theater, everyone has a unique part, so there is more incentive to show up,” she said. “Impulsivity is common in addiction – with theater, they have to think about the future because everything they do is to prepare for this thing down the road, so we cultivate this forward-thinking thought process that is really important in addiction therapy.”

Wasmuth interviews the participants prior to the sessions and for some period of time afterward, looking for a reduction in substance use and improvements in self-esteem, relationships and general functioning and well-being. Previous outings have found positive results for as long as six months after the performances. She writes about the findings in an upcoming issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Among the anecdotal evidence, she recalls one veteran with PTSD who conquered his fear of going out in public after taking part in a production. Another participant said the role-playing helped him relate better with his ex-wife, and the performance gave him a worthwhile experience to share with his son.

“This was the first time his son had seen him do anything positive,” Wasmuth said.