Addiction is often the stuff of potent drama. Mary Tyrone has her morphine; Harper Pitt enjoys her Valium “in wee fistfuls.” Similar to George and Martha before them, the characters in the new musical Days of Wine and Roses, like its namesake film, are full-fledged alcoholics whose lives are forever changed by their dependency on the bottle to get them through the day.
Another relatively recent addition to the canon is The White Chip by Sean Daniels. Daniels’s career is prodigious: cofounder of the Atlanta theater company Dad’s Garage; former associate artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville, where he oversaw the Human Festival; director of Benjamin Scheuer’s hit off-Broadway musical The Lion. The White Chip is his autobiographical dramedy about his longtime addiction to alcohol, and his winding path to recovery.
Actor Joe Tapper has a similar journey of addition to recovery as Daniels. His spiritual kinship led him to reading a PDF of the White Chip script in one sitting, and figuring out how to leave another project so he could take on Daniels’ stage alter ego instead. Since then — a production that ran in 2019 at 59E59 — Tapper has played the role in several mountings of Sheryl Kaller’s staging, and is once again returning to it for another off-Broadway go, this time at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space. Joining him are actors Crystal A. Dickson and Jason Tam, and a starry list of producers that includes Jason Biggs, John Larroquette, Hank Azaria, and Tapper’s wife, Annaleigh Ashford.
In a recent Zoom, Tapper, in New York, and Daniels, in Sarasota, where he serves as associate director of Florida Studio Theatre and director of its Recovery Project, discussed the history of the play, and why stories of addiction and recovery are of tantamount importance to share in a world where there’s still a negative stigma attached.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I saw The White Chip at 59E59 in 2019 and it feels weird to say I enjoyed it, given the subject matter. But I did, and as someone with a family history of alcoholism, I’m very glad it’s coming back for more people to experience.
Sean Daniels: I really appreciate your thoughts about it; I always feel the same way. Like, I’m slightly embarrassed that people have come to see it, and then I’m shocked that they enjoyed it. What we know now is that one in three households in the country is affected by addition. It would make sense that everybody who comes knows somebody. And because we don’t talk about it, you don’t realize that everybody knows somebody until you’re me standing in the lobby and everybody comes up to thank you and say, “You just told the story of my son, daughter, father.”
Joe Tapper: I think that weirdness you experienced by saying you enjoyed the play is the goal. The needle of the thread is that this is a heavy topic, but it’s such a joyful, restorative piece. It’s not only about recovery, but family and community, which is why it’s so beautiful that it’s told in such a theatrical way. The community of recovery, that need for I see you and you see me, is the same in theater: We see you, audience, and audience sees me, and together we create something that only exists for 85 minutes. You came in for something super heavy and you walked out smiling, and I love that.
Sean, obviously this is inspired by your own personal history. Why did you feel a play would be the best way for you to discuss it?
Sean: When I was trying to get sober, I was a big relapser. At the time, I couldn’t find anything that was funny, or felt like it was about now, or felt like it was eventually about science. Everything has this sort of 1920s language around it, or is religion-based, which works for a lot of people, but didn’t work for me. I always thought that if I get through this, I have to write the thing that I can’t find.
I grew up in the afterschool special era. Something horrible has happened to Jo and everyone from The Facts of Life has to talk to her. Between that and Just Say No, there was never anything done with comedy or joy to it. So often in modern media, if you see an AA meeting, it’s seven sad people in a church basement and they chant your name at you, and you’re like “Who wants to go to that? That doesn’t sound good at all.” And then in real life you go and it’s fantastic storytellers and laughter and camaraderie. I mean, it’s black humor — you go and people tell horrible stories in the room and we’re howling — but it’s people getting together.
Theater has always been my life, and it felt like it was the right way to talk about it. There’s a great Ted Talk that says how the opposite of addiction is not abstinence, but community. Why is people getting together in a church basement the thing that gets people sober? We all know that there is real power in gathering with other people. It’s the same thing as theater. All day long, we sell how much power there is in being connected to your community and fellow person. I think it makes sense that both recovery and theater are kind of selling the same thing. If you connect with other people, not only will you be healthier, but you’ll just have a better sense of what is going on in the world going forward.
Joe, this is your third or fourth time doing this play. How did you get involved to begin with and what is it like to do every night?
Joe: I live my existence as a sober human being very loudly. If you meet me and you don’t already know, it’s something I’ll tell you within the first five sentences. My friend, Chris Peña, who is a terrific playwright, is also a friend of Sean’s and he knew they were going to do the production at 59E59 and he sent me a PDF of the script. I remember sitting in my living room just poring through this thing. I finished the script and I called my manager and I said, “Hey, I know I’ve got this other project coming up, but I think I have a very worthy problem to create for you.” And here we are. It’s absolutely restorative for me to do it every night. It’s all 12-step. I’m giving sobriety away every night and it helps me, Joe Tapper, keep it. It’s a great gift to get to do it.
Like many professions, the theater industry seems dependent on alcohol for both work and pleasure-related reasons. As sober artists, how do you navigate that?
Joe: It’s a good question because it’s really hard. When I first got sober, I was still a bartender. In my early days, we would get off at 2:30 in the morning and my co-workers would say, “It’s time for our Jameson shots,” and I would have to make up an excuse why I wasn’t joining in on that fun. Through time, I was like, “This is just what it is, and take me or leave me, because my girlfriend” — who’s now my wife — “likes me a lot more now.” But I’ll say to myself that the minimum I have to stay in a place is 15 minutes. I can do anything for 15 minutes, for the most part. So, I owe this party 15 minutes and I won’t be missing out on anything. It’s gonna be OK.
Sean: My sponsor is also an actor. At the very beginning, he was like, “You have to keep going to bars.” You can’t give those places power over you because note sessions happen at the bar, everyone goes to the restaurant, and if you start to be weird about it, in our industry…At some point, you’re gonna walk into a bar and you haven’t been in one in a year-and-a-half and you’re gonna need some help.
I thought that was terrible advice. And he was like, “No, that’s where meetings happen. If someone in our industry says, ‘I want to get a drink,’ you have to be cordial. And if they want it to be at the bar, you sit at the bar and you get a diet Coke.” At the beginning, it felt like playing with gasoline all the time. But he made a great point, and it doesn’t have any power over me anymore. I’ve defeated it now thousands of times. I can easily walk in now and it’s no big deal. It’s not a place I’m afraid of. To be in our industry is to know that there are going to be late nights, and you’re going to be in places where you could be in danger. So you have to have control over all those things.
What does it mean to both of you that so many notable people, not just Annaleigh, but Hank Azaria, John Larroquette, Jason Biggs, have signed on to give this piece another life?
Sean: I’m grateful that so many people are willing to put this out there. I feel like the passing of Matthew Perry has really been a crucial moment in the recovery world. It feels like we’re finally having the conversation. So many of us remember what The Normal Heart did for the AIDS conversation, and how one piece of theater — and I’m not saying we’re that — but we all know that theater does have the power to change national conversations.
With Matthew’s passing, not only are these people coming forward, but it’s no longer a dark secret. Hank Azaira wrote one of the most amazing op-eds about his sobriety after Matthew’s passing. When I was getting sober, John Larroquette was somebody who I knew who was very publicly sober and very funny and very successful and very rich. So, you’re like, “It can be done.” I think of his bravery and how it has no doubt saved lives. We’re grateful to have him on this.
Joe: One of the things that Aaron Glick, who’s also a producer on the show, said to Annaleigh when they saw it together at 59E59, was that this is why we do theater. My sobriety date is the most important day in my life. All of the other most important days in my life — my wedding, my son’s birth — none of those things would happen without it. It is the great honor of my life to get to live inside Sean’s play, and to have all these people support it is just unending gratitude because they’re amplifying this message that addiction is not a weakness.