Words by Marley DeRosia and Jesse Partick
Photos by Andrea Westerlund
Walk into Boulder on any given Tuesday night and you’ll see a variety of people—students tucking into their textbooks behind luminous laptop screens; a couple ordering lattes to kick off their first date; perhaps you’ll notice the editor of Flower Power inhaling coffee with an obscene amount of sugar. Move into the main dining room of Boulder, however, and you’ll witness a merging of creative minds.
The Stages in Recovery theater group — led by Emily Moughan — meets here each week like clockwork as they hunch over notebooks, guzzle coffee, and talk the ins and outs of their next stage production.
This group is unique: it’s one of the only sober theater groups in the area. For folks in recovery, it can be especially difficult to find creative outlets that don’t involve booze and substances. Drinking tends to go hand-in-hand with most activities adults are engaged in, which is fine for some people but it can make people who are in recovery feel left out or tempted to indulge.
Emily notes that Rochester is an ideal space for something like this: the hub of an artistically-inclined area that is big enough to support so many creative venues, but small enough to feel intimate. Whether you love music, art, or nature, Emily says “we have it all” in a beautiful “blossoming of diversity” in Rochester.
Emily Moughan has been on a stage since she was five years old, but her talents are innumerable. She entered the production side of things when she realized “acting can get you so far, but production work pays the bills.” When she moved from New York City to Rochester, NY, she used her theater experience in the form of games to help her kindergarten class develop emotional expression. It became one of the first inklings of the idea that she can teach others important life skills through the lens of theater.
“I really wanted to hone in on the skills that theater and performing gives to children,” Emily explains, “which confidence, mainly. And community. It was cool to be able to give that to kids and kind of satiate my need for theater that I’d put on the back burner.”
After years of teaching, she yearned to reach adults in a similar way. That’s what inspired her to gain a degree in substance use counseling. It was during her first internship that she repeatedly heard how bored her clients were. Emily recalled her time as a teacher and how well the students did with theater-inspired lessons. She was also inspired by her friends working for nonprofits that connected to patients in recovery in unique ways. She figured that the usual programming for substance abuse counseling wasn’t engaging enough for some of the people she was seeing.
The intersection between art, teaching, and the possibility of healing is closer than one might think. An idea started to grow, but she wasn’t sure how—or even if—it would work.
Spoiler: it did. Emily’s using her talent gleaned from the stage to help others perform with a focus on healing. Stages In Recovery is a volunteer-based sober theater group designed to be a safe space for
people in recovery without the pressure of substances. Even if they’re in a place where alcohol is served, like Boulder, they can feel comfortable knowing that the pressure is off when they sit in their group.
“Drinking alcohol is a part of our culture in general. We’ve mixed drinking and substances into anything adult,” Emily ponders. “Unfortunately, this overshadows the whole point of the event. We have to remember that we can do these things without that!”
“Mixing the recovery benefits of emotional regulation and healthy communication with creativity was where it all started.”
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t bumps in the road. The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic put most group activities on hold, but finally, in the Fall of 2021, it was time to make the leap. She already had the name, but now she needed a space and members to take part.
It started with simple flyers and a Facebook group. She was given permission to hold weekly meet-ups at Boulder Café and Lounge on Alexander Street. Emily is incredibly grateful to have this spot to meet up, brainstorm, and plan, but she needed theater space to make this dream a reality.
Now, the group has 10 regularly attending members with more people coming when they’re able. Not all of them are actors; there’s someone with a nack for the business side of theater,
too, which Emily admits is something she’s still learning about.
There will be an open casting call on July 13 with the first performance scheduled for October 1, entitled, “My Voice, My Echo.” She stresses that the open casting call is not an audition — anyone impacted by substance abuse and engaging in recovery are welcome to perform. The only other requirement to attend meetings and workshops is 48 hours of sobriety.
“We recognize that reoccurrences can happen and we don’t want that to ever deter someone from coming back,” she explains.
This first show will be a simple black box production to keep the pressure down for the performers. After the open casting call, her plan is to continue meeting at Boulder one night per week for discussion and planning, with one day of rehearsal and one workshop day to develop skills.
With the pandemic winding down (knock on wood), she also believes the timing is right.“People are yearning for creative outlets that also provide genuine human connection,” Emily says. “I want Stages in Recovery to become a safe place where people can express themselves without fear of judgment.”
She also dreams of adding in music, dance, and visual arts workshops for those who are looking for other sober creative outlets.
“We want to keep community and connection alive. It’s about recognizing you can do fun things without the presence of substances or putting your recovery at risk.”