Rachel Aberle is the new Artistic Director of Vancouver’s Green Thumb Theatre Company. Green Thumb’s CRANKED: The ReMix is next on MTYP’s mainstage, as well as touring to Manitoba high schools. In this interview, Rachel talks about why this play has never been more relevant.

This is Green Thumb’s first touring show, since the beginning of the pandemic, correct? Why did you choose this show to bring back live theatre to your audiences?

This is actually not our first touring show since the start of the pandemic. We toured three shows live to schools in BC last season. It is however our first show touring outside of BC since the pandemic began, and we’re so excited to return to MTYP and bring our work across Canada. I chose to bring CRANKED: The ReMix back this season in a live version because the response to our digital version last season was so positive. Since the original version of CRANKED premiered over 15 years ago, young people have really responded to a show that presents this kind of challenging subject matter in an elevated, artistically excellent way. It has always subverted the expectations people have of what a ‘drug play’ is going to look and sound like. Unfortunately, substance use disorder and overdose are issues that have only grown in prevalence and reach since the original version premiered, and given the increasing intensity of Canada’s toxic-drug crisis, bringing a play that explores the realities of hard drug use to young people seemed more important than ever.

It’s wonderful that elements of TIkTok and hip hop have been integrated into the performance. Was there a specific reason for this?

Actually, you won’t see elements of TikTok in the live version – that was a convention we used for the digital version to really embrace the medium of it being a live filmed piece, rather than an in-person performance. Hip hop has always been at the core of the show, going back to the original CRANKED because playwright Michael Northey and rapper Kyprios cared deeply both about the devastating impact of illicit drug use and the power of expressing themselves through art – in this case through spoken word and hip hop. As a director, bringing a piece to schools that reflects the kind of music and pop culture that young people are currently interested in plays a big part in that subversion of expectations I mentioned before. That was one of the reasons it was really important to me to update the piece fully, both with new plot elements that are more modern day, but also with brand new music so we are really seeing a show that will be something today’s teenagers are excited to see and listen to.

The drug overdose crisis has become a national epidemic. It seems that no one can say they haven’t been affected. Why do you think this is happening right now?

While I’m by no means a public health or drug policy expert, it seems to me that Canada’s current overdose crisis is part of a storm that has been brewing for decades. The opioid crisis sparked by the wide marketing and use of OxyContin has ravaged families across North America, and created populations of people with drug dependence where illicit drug use was relatively low previously. Substance use disorder and addiction don’t discriminate by ethnicity, culture, income, gender or any other identity parameter – vulnerabilities exist across the board. But the stigmatization of drug use that ran rampant during the ‘war on drugs’ era still persists today. It creates a culture where people are afraid to ask for help when they need it, or where they use drugs alone, which is incredibly dangerous to do with the level of toxicity in illicit drugs in Canada. The pandemic has only made things worse, on a couple of fronts. The isolation and stress caused by the pandemic saw many people turning to self-medication in the form of drug use, and global supply chain issues made the manufacturing of illicit drugs incredibly dangerous as people turned to whatever they could access to create the drugs in highest demand. One heartbreaking statistic is that in the summer of 2019, apparent opioid toxicity deaths were actually falling, and in July were at their lowest point in almost three years. If you look at a chart of opioid toxicity deaths, you see a sharp spike beginning in 2020, and by April 1st of that year, deaths are more than double what they were the previous summer. Since then, their rate has remained incredibly high. Without prevention efforts to keep people from trying illicit drugs in the first place, harm reduction efforts to keep people who are using safe, and low-barrier recovery programs for those who want to stop using drugs, this rate will at best remain stable, and at worse continue to climb.

The show has been touring recently to school audiences across Canada. What audience reaction has stuck with you?

More than anything it’s just wonderful to see young people seeing live theatre again. For a lot of young folks, watching CRANKED: The ReMix has been their first experience watching a play, and the fact that it’s a show about someone their age, facing issues that they or their friends and family have faced is really special. I think theatre belongs to everyone, and providing young people with access to theatre that is relevant to their daily lives is something I really enjoy being a part of.

MTYP is presenting this show on our mainstage and touring it throughout Winnipeg and Manitoba. Why is it important for teenagers to see this show?

The overdose crisis isn’t going anywhere soon unfortunately, so a lot of young people either will have a personal connection to it at some point, or in some cases already do. It’s not a problem we can solve by pretending it isn’t there. I think acknowledging the depth of the problem, the pain that it causes, and also some of the pathways forward is really important. There’s a lot young people can take away from the show, whether it’s to avoid illicit drugs entirely, or learn to use and carry a naloxone kit, or ask for help if they or someone they know is struggling. All of those messages exist within the play, and I think they’re all important.

Tickets for CRANKED: The ReMix are now on sale! There are two public performances on November 12 and 13. You can buy them here.