Improbable Players Use Theater To Teach Kids About Addiction, Recovery

By Paul Gaita 08/30/19

The Massachusetts-based group has brought their message to more than one million students.

Improbable Players
Improbable Players perform their play about the opioid epidemic, "End of the Line." Photo credit: Ally Rzesa

For the past three decades, a dedicated group of professional actors, all of whom are in recovery from dependency issues, have made it their goal to provide "prevention education" about all forms of addiction and recovery to the public through dramatic performances and theater workshops.

In doing so, the Massachusetts-based Improbable Players—which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year with a gala and fundraising event—has brought their message to more than one million students in New England, the Northeast United States and Ohio.

They've also supported more than 200 individuals in recovery by giving them a unique forum to share their experiences.

Photo credit: Ally Rzesa

The Founder

Founded in 1984 by actor and educator Lynn Bratley whose own experiences with alcoholism and sobriety formed the basis for the Players' first show, the company soon became a "foundational program," as executive director Andy Short tells The Fix.

"It took actors in recovery and created plays from true stories," he said. "Often, these were stories from the actors who were part of the playmaking process. We brought that to schools as a 45-minute show."

Photo credit: Ally Rzesa

The Players perform for school audiences starting at the sixth grade level. Of the 118 shows they put on in 2018, Short says that 105 were for schools, with the remainder at conferences, treatment centers and community events, all in the New England area, as well as New York, New Jersey and Cleveland, Ohio.

Each show is followed by a Q&A session with the performers. The focus is, as Short says, "agnostic, to use a 12-step term. We show people in treatment and seeking help from peers, relatives and professionals, but we don't get very specific [about forms of treatment] within the play itself."

For audiences, the Improbable Players offers an honest and unfiltered look at addiction and recovery that's drawn from real-life experience. "We have two things going for us," says Short.

"Right off the bat, we say that we have this problem, and that wakes them up a little bit. The other thing is that we don't preach—we show addiction and recovery as it could happen—and just because someone doesn't have an addiction, that doesn't mean you couldn't benefit from seeing it, because you could think, 'Oh, this could help my friends.' And at the end of every show, we say, 'Who here knows someone who might have a problem?' We get 80% of hands going up in middle school."

For the actors, the shows are a chance to share what they've learned, and in the process, gain support for their own recovery. For Short, who joined after three years in recovery, that feedback proved invaluable. "I was working at Starbucks and having a tough time, really depressed," he recalls. 

Shared Experiences

"My first show, this girl came up to me and asked how she could talk to her brother—they weren't talking and he had just dropped out of school because of addiction," he says. "I had a conversation and hooked her up with counselors at the school. For me, I felt, 'I can be really useful with my experience here.' That was really important for my recovery, and other people have had the same experience."

On October 28, 2019, the Improbable Players will celebrate their 35th anniversary with a fundraising gala and performances at the Lyric Stage Company in Boston, Massachusetts. It's a chance for the group to honor its work and to support its performers, as well as introduce audiences and potential supporters to their mission of prevention education. Space is limited. For more information on the Improbable Players, visit

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.