With an estimated one in 10 Americans living with an alcohol use disorder, addiction remains a prevalent condition. Yet for all its depictions in modern media and the arts, authentic and earnest representations of alcoholism are not as common. In theatre, characters like Mary in Merrily We Roll Along or George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf come to mind—though their excessive alcohol consumption are played as humorous or a character flaw. But for those in recovery and looking for theatrical catharsis, look no further than Sean Daniels' The White Chip Off-Broadway.
The autobiographical work chronicles Daniels' nearly-lifelong journey with alcoholism and, eventually, recovery—from first sip to rock bottom to finding freedom. The work previously played 59E59 Theaters in 2019, and returned Off-Broadway January 22 to at MCC Theater's space though March 9.
Joe Tapper is reprising his role from the 2019 bow as the central character Steven. Tapper has been open about his connection to the work, being in recovery himself. His wife, Annaleigh Ashford, has shown her support by joining the producing team for the production, which is comprised of a handful of others who have a personal tie to the subject, including recovery activist and writer Ryan Hampton, and The Recovery Project—an initiative out of Florida Studio Theatre led by Daniels supporting and advocating for artists in recovery.
Daniels and Tapper talked with Playbill about their own journeys of recovery in relation to their artistry, drinking culture in the entertainment industry, and what continually motivates them to share their stories.
Do you feel that addiction tends to go undetected more easily in the arts?
Sean Daniels: There's a great study that Scientific American did, and it said that artists and writers are 20 times more likely to suffer from bipolar disorders and manic depressive illnesses, and 10 times more likely to suffer from depression. And you either need to read a study, or you need to talk to three artists to be able to understand that that's the way that it is. We have not designed it this way, but it's a really cruel industry for recovery.
If you're an actor, the amount of weeks you work is tied to your insurance, and you are often in a town not with your primary care provider, and you're away from friends and family…One of the things we’re working on down in Florida is a warm line for artists, which does exist in other industries. Lawyers have it, airline pilots have it, nurses have it. I have lots of lawyer friends who say that their warmline saved their life. It's essentially just peer-to-peer counseling. We don't have anything like that in the arts. So we're really trying to figure out how can we provide resources for somebody, because no matter how cool a boss you are, no one goes to their boss for this.
Joe Tapper: Let me say first that this isn’t anyone’s fault, but when I first started getting sober, I had the worry that I wouldn’t be able to make connections. You go to a play, and then you go out afterwards and you meet another director who saw it, or the playwright, and maybe it leads to something else. There’s always that notion of, “If I go to this one thing, and it leads to another thing, then I’ve got another job, or another bridge has formed.” I had to take a really honest look at that and realize that I don’t want anyone to meet that person [at a bar], I want them to meet me. So now, to this day, if I do a workshop and they all go out, I say “this was amazing, bye!” And maybe I get a text or something, but it’s always for the better.
Sean, across your career and your recovery, you’ve worked in so many different cities and pockets of culture. Have you found that some artistic communities and environments were able to better support your recovery? How did it differ from the experience here in New York?
Daniels: The thing that is always surprising to me is that big party communities are also big recovery communities. Los Angeles has an amazing recovery community, and so does New Orleans, and you think of those as real boozy cities. But New York is actually phenomenal. New York was the first time that there was a “Broadway” meeting. It was the first time I went to a meeting and I heard people share my exact story. I didn’t have to try to understand how I was sort of similar to a biologist. Someone was saying, “I promised myself I would never be drunk onstage.” And you’re watching people with huge careers in our industry talk about that.
Tapper: I totally agree. I remember that first meeting I went to in New York was how you described. And when I said, “Hey, this is my first meeting,” they actually clapped. I’ll never forget that in my whole life.
Do you think that art, whether it be classic pieces we’ve studied and performed for decades or newer works, has a tendency to romanticize addiction? And has that culture impacted either of you on your journeys?
Tapper: I think it did. And not only did it kind of romanticize…the stories like Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie running off stage and throwing up because she was so drunk and then coming back on and giving the greatest performance ever…those kinds of stories were very appealing to me. My genetic wiring was attracted to that. And that’s not their fault.
On the flip side of that, are there any works that offered a depiction of alcoholism that was eye-opening for you?
Tapper: I think Sean wrote the play. And I, as a person who is a recovering alcoholic, I was always looking for this kind of play. I've never quite seen a story like this on stage, or read it. I read it furiously in a couple of hours one afternoon, because my wife was sweet enough to watch our kid for me. And I was just like, whatever I have to do to get an audition for this, this has to happen.
Joe—tackling a project with this kind of stage time is no small feat, but on top of that, you’re taking on such a raw and real story that is very close to you. How have you been supporting yourself and your mental health throughout this process?
Tapper: One of the steps of recovery is that “If you want to keep your sobriety, you’ve got to give it away.” This thing that I get to do that I love is also an act of service for sobriety. And one of the things that I love so much about the play is that it restores and repairs itself every night [with the ending], so I get to heal with the play.
And the same for you, Sean—seeing your own story up there, with some of the absolute lowest points of your life, must be a hefty weight to bear.
Daniels: It is really triggering. There are a couple of scenes where Joe plays them so well and so honestly that I’m suddenly right back there again and I get the cold sweats. I got to go to an event last night where one of our producers was talking about how when he’s acting, if he’s pretending to drink or playing drunk, his muscle memory kicks in and he sometimes has to stop. I feel that watching Joe go through it too. But even when I don’t watch the whole show, I still come in and watch the last 15 minutes so that I can really be a part of the joy that comes at the end, and when people come out afterwards, I get to hear how they felt.
Joe, with your performance, you really carry the authenticity of the piece by being so connected and engaged with the audience. Do you have a particular technique or philosophy you refer to for reaching through that invisible barrier?
Tapper: Something I really believe in with recovery and with theatre is the belief in the collective. What is going to happen onstage one night will never be repeated. So, when I step to the front of the stage at the beginning of the play, I try to look out, which is challenging and vulnerable, but I try to show that you see me and I see you.
Sean, it was awesome how Crystal and Jason alternated so many characters throughout the show to support the main journey. How did the idea come to you for this to be a solo-plus-ensemble type of piece?
Daniels: The thing I love most about theatre is theatricality; things that we can do that no other art form can do. I can put on a hat, and I’m this character, then a scarf, and I’m another character. I didn’t want it to be another one-man-show about addiction. This gives more options, and it also gets more artists onstage.
Both of you have been so open in interviews and other dialogue about your journeys in recovery within the theatre community. Do you feel you’ve encountered any barriers because of that, and how do you challenge stigma when it appears?
Daniels: There is a type of stigma that exists, but I don’t think people say it. I think [our being in recovery] makes people nervous. There’s probably artistic director jobs that I’ve applied for where I don’t get the interview because they need to fundraise a lot, and that’s a lot of dinners and a lot of galas, and they need someone fun. There’s coded language in there. You know, when Hank Azaria wrote his op-ed in The New York Times, I thought that was amazing. You should know that people in recovery are wildly successful and are funny and have lives. We need to show all the options so that people don’t think you’re just some sweaty, nervous person at an event who can barely hold on. I think it’s part of our job to change that image.
Tapper: My approach is that I’m very up front about it. Almost instantly, I’m like, “Hi, how are you? I’m sober!” This is who I am, and if you don’t want to go out to eat with me, that’s cool. I’ll be so happy to just say, “Have a great night.” But I can still have a great time with you, and you don’t need to be afraid of who you are in front of me.
Sean, could you share a little bit about The Recovery Project, and how you’ve been spearheading that over the last year?
Daniels: It's really about trying to take care of artists and provide resources with the belief that artists are the people that set the national narrative of what this is. There were all these great studies that were done during the pandemic about national narratives…the thing they came back to was the arts. When Ellen came out, or [with gay couples on] Modern Family and Will and Grace, people began to change…I think that’s the thing we’re going for: to break down stigma, and let the arts take a leading role.
I’m sure that working on this piece has brought moments for you both where it’s just unraveled people and had them open up to you. Are there any comments about the show or conversations you’ve had with audience members that have really stuck with you?
Daniels: My sister-in-law read the show and she said, “I think I hate my father a little less.” Of all the things we want to do with our lives—if a piece of art that we made helped people hate each other a little less? That’s the goal. In 2024, I think a lot, will we ever agree with people that disagree with us, or is it just the end times? One of our jobs as artists is to say: “The trauma that we’ve had, let’s unpack that a little.”
Tapper: I lost my father in 2020 to alcoholism. Late in his journey, he had reached out to me, and because my wife is who she is, she turned the world inside out to get him from Illinois to see the 2019 production. And it really stuck with him as he was struggling. He was in the hospital and was going through some some kind of mandatory detox withdrawal before we had to get a different procedure because he was also battling cancer—that kind of cancer, the number one cause of throat cancer is alcoholism and cigarette smoking, and he was the world champion of those. But he reached out to me and said, "Your play changed me. I can't go home after this, I have to go to rehab. I've got to go get my white chip."