Local actor takes educational role in opioid discussion

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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Two local actors, Emma Wagner of Maplewood and Joseph Piserchio of West Orange, will tour New Jersey as part of George Street Playhouse’s Educational Touring Theatre’s new production “Anytown,” a new musical about the opioid crisis and its impact on teens and families. The show premiered Sept. 25 at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick as part of a conference about the opioid crisis that featured New Jersey Attorney Gen. Gurbir Grewal as the keynote speaker.

“Anytown” was developed in response to the devastating impact that prescription opioid misuse, and heroin and fentanyl have had on communities throughout New Jersey. It focuses on the consequences of opioid abuse.

“I thought it very important for me and others from my office to be here today. This is by far the biggest law enforcement issue that we are dealing with on a local, state and perhaps even national level: the opioid epidemic,” Grewal said in his keynote address. “The word that I would use is “unprecedented.” We have lost more people from drug overdoses than we did in the two decades of the Vietnam War. Changing this starts with prevention, and from drawing the stigma from addiction. I think that’s a big leap we had to take from a law enforcement perspective. It’s not a law enforcement issue — it’s an addiction issue, and you can’t lock away an illness. The number of deaths doesn’t even show the real picture. The reason we share these numbers is to prompt a real discussion.”

As seen in the new musical, the pain management of sports injuries can very quickly lead to an addiction, and Grewal’s office plans to approach this reality from two angles: student-athlete education and continuing education on opioid use for medical doctors.

“This year we will be sharing fact sheets with student-athletes as a condition for participation,” he said. “The other thing we’re doing at the Attorney General’s Office is working with prescribers, because again, it starts with prescriptions for pain management that then progress to opioids. We will also require our doctors to do continuing medical education on opioids. We have pivoted from that mindset that we have to lock people up.”

Working in partnership with the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and RWJBarnabas Health, “Anytown” was created from interviews with opioid-abuse prevention experts, families with children struggling with addiction, individuals recovering from opioid abuse, doctors, law enforcement officers, students and educators. Key research and feedback during the development of the musical was provided by RWJBarnabas Health’s Institute for Prevention and Recovery and Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

“George Street Playhouse has a rich history of addressing health or health care issues, such as autism, diabetes, etc., so for us the partnership was sort of magical because they aren’t clinicians, and we aren’t actors but we were able to come together and bring a really meaningful production,” Jen Velez, executive vice president of community and behavioral health at RWJBarnabas Health, said in a recent phone interview. “The theater staff were very sensitive to how to develop the right message to convey this very important epidemic, and we served as technical assistants to make sure that the message was developed sensitively and authentically. Recovery specialists met with them and gave them background of their lived experiences to help with character development.”

George Street Playhouse Touring Theatre is a troupe of four actors and a stage manager — all recent college graduates with degrees in theater — who travel approximately 7,000 miles each school year in a van filled with costumes, props and sets to perform more than 150 shows at schools throughout the state.

Each performance is followed by a post-play discussion with the students to examine and discuss the themes of the show. The actors are trained in conflict resolution and peer-mediation techniques, which enables them to facilitate conversations with young audiences. The tour is available from through April 6, 2019. “Anytown” is targeted to middle and high school students in grades seven through 12, reaching up to 10,000 students annually.

Piserchio, a longtime West Orange resident, is on his second tour with George Street Playhouse and credits his experiences in both high school and college as factors in how he has continued to expand as an actor.

“My friend Angela works at George Street Playhouse and she convinced me to audition for last year’s tour, and I joined and have been touring with them since then. I graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison and have been involved in theater for a long time,” Piserchio said in a recent phone interview. “As a student in West Orange schools, I was in all of the shows from sixth grade up until 12th grade. Being collaborative is the basis of theater and I learned that pretty young. It’s a pretty universal thing that we discuss and strive for, and being open and honest and vulnerable are always the key.”

Piserchio said he was immediately interested in this year’s musical highlighting the opioid epidemic when he reviewed the material for the new show.

“I really loved ‘Anytown’ the minute I read it, and I started working on it in January 2018. The minute I saw the script and heard the music I was hooked; it has an impressive score and script. What I found interesting was just how engaged the students were, because when you think of middle and high school students watching a play, that normally isn’t the case, but the moment the show starts they are completely aware of what’s happening and that was really special for me,” he said. “I was really happy and it was really a credit that the students were understanding of the disease.”

Maplewood resident Emma Wagner was also hooked once she saw the script and music for “Anytown,” and she knew that it was something that she wanted to be involved in. She had been introduced to George Street Playhouse as a student at Montclair State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in acting. A graduate of Columbia High School, Wagner said she has been doing shows since second grade and has always had an interest in theater.

“Every year Jim Jack, director of education and outreach for George Street Playhouse, interviews seniors at Montclair and my senior year he asked me to join the upcoming tour, but I had already committed to Disney. When I returned to New Jersey, I saw that they were auditioning for this year’s tour. I love working with kids and already knew Jim, so it was a really good job for me to get,” she said, adding that she was thrilled to earn the role of Hope in “Anytown.” “I definitely think there are important things revealed in the show and I have several family members who deal with substance-abuse disorder. I felt that I had a lot of similarities to Hope, and I could have easily been her and addiction would have been a problem in my life. I don’t think it sinks in how quickly you can become addicted to it.”

Wagner credits her artistic upbringing in the South Orange-Maplewood School District to her eventual pursuit of a career in performance arts.

“I have been doing shows since second grade, and in middle school was the first time I did a full blown actual show. My father was an actor so I have always been exposed to theater and acting and such, and middle school was when I knew I wanted to pursue it,” Wagner said in a recent phone interview. “I definitely think that I was very lucky to grow up in South Orange-Maplewood because that district is so surrounded by the arts; we have a lot of professional performers who work in the city and will come help us and support the local arts. The shows I did were really professionally done and growing up in that neighborhood helped push me towards the arts and always help support me.”

Photos by Shanee Frazier and Courtesy of Jerry Dalia