David Garrett Shaw never planned to write an intensely personal play about drug addiction. When the goal every day is just surviving to the next, it’s hard to make any plans at all. Instead, the gifted musician and lyricist spent the early months of 2016 writing a series of stream-of-consciousness poetry — “rants,” he called them — to satisfy a deep and newfound passion for fiction.
“And two of those rants,” he says during a recent telephone interview, “birthed the play ‘Having a Ball With God.’ ”
Two years later, Shaw’s first play is, on some small level, a hit. “Having a Ball With God” is among seven shows to make the finals of the New York New Works Theatre Festival, which takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Acorn Theatre.
The play, which focuses on a pair of drug addicts — one of whom believes he’s Jesus — during a three-day meth binge in a seedy hotel room outside Trenton, has already resonated with audiences following its two previous stagings at the festival.
“I had one woman tell me, ‘this changed my life,’ ” says Shaw, 40, a 1995 graduate of Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, PA. “She said, ‘I feel compelled, if this is produced anywhere, to bring my parents, to bring people to this because you’re articulating what my significant other has been trying to articulate for over a year, and I just couldn’t get it, and I get it now.’
“That’s profound, you know,” Shaw says. “It actually makes me tear up thinking about it. About a year into writing it, I realized that was my goal, and I started to really drive toward conveying both sides of the perspective — the loved one and the sick — and trying to illuminate each perspective fairly so that both the sick and the loved ones walk away better equipped to communicate and understand each other.”
Though Shaw has never encountered somebody who believes he’s Jesus, he describes the play and the main character of Chad as 80 percent autobiographical — “closer to 90 to 95 percent if you include personal experiences of one degree of separation.”
The divorced father of two – a son, 18, and daughter, 11 – has been diagnosed as bipolar and suffers from PTSD and substance abuse disorder. He has been institutionalized three times for drug-related reasons and twice tried to kill himself in 2003.
“I was dealing with the divorce and separation right around the corner, but more than anything, it was me not understanding at all what I was contending with in regards to my own volatility and emotionally self-medicating with primarily alcohol at that point in time,” Shaw says. “I was dealing with more than I could handle as a human being. I can’t say the rockiness of my relationship precipitated it in its entirety — it certainly didn’t help — but the thing that created the rockiness of the relationship was at least partially my volatility.”
Shaw, whose substances of choice were alcohol and cocaine, says he has been clean for just over two years, save for a weekend relapse last August.
He had earlier been clean and in recovery for over a year when, in 2011, he was on his way to get a haircut during his lunch break from work before a texting driver ran a red light and T-boned his car. The accident “destroyed my back and neck” and left him out of work for six weeks. To this day, the former financial planner (he sold his small brokerage firm in 2015) suffers from physical limitations, such as no longer being able play the upright bass, one of his many instruments growing up. He is still in the long process of awaiting Social Security disability. Through the years, the accident and its after-effects have made maintaining his sobriety extremely difficult.
“Aside from the literal physical pain and limitations, the repercussions of that emotionally have been severe with regards to an increase and more consistent depressed bias,” Shaw says. “It’s kind of hard to deal with mental illness when you’re in pain all the time. And when you’re a drug addict, you can’t take pain medicine, which I don’t take. “Probably about a year after the accident I caved. I ended up using Percocet, and then eventually Percocet and crystal meth until 2016.”
I hope this story saves you
Shaw describes his children, David and Danielle, as “the reason I’m alive, point blank.”
“Having a Ball With God” and the artistic collaborators he has surrounded himself with over the last year have also been invaluable in helping him cope with his ongoing internal demons.
“I said at one point to Dave, ‘I hope this story saves you,’ which I think is exactly why he wrote it for himself, ” says actor Righteous Jolly, who plays JC.
“This play is a magnifying glass of self-reflection, if you have the self-awareness to want to heal, whatever that means to you, which is just balance as far as I’m concerned. This play does touch on substance abuse, it does touch on mental illness and the stigma that exists with loved ones and the like. It’s heavy shit, and it needs to be,” says Jolly. “It needs to be discussed.”
Jolly, a 2000 Truman graduate, was aware of Shaw and his musical talents but didn’t meet him personally until seeing him perform at an open mic two years ago.
“I said, ‘I remember, you’re like a bass dude,’ and he’s like, ‘I remember your name too.’ He knows I’m an actor and he goes, ‘I wrote something and I’d like you to read it,’ ” Jolly says. “And I read it, and it resonated. Who cannot relate to the subject matter at this point? Especially in our area, who has not been affected by this one way or the other?
“I sort of worked with him for the better part of two years. I didn’t literally write anything, I just gave him suggestions because this was a new wheelhouse for him. I’m a little more versed, I went to school for theater and such, I’ve read a lot of plays and I was very helpful in that regard. I told him from the get-go, I’d love to see it staged and I’d love to be a part of it in some fashion, and I can’t believe it’s even gotten this far on some level. That’s what collaboration does.”
Through Jolly, Shaw met actor Jim Burns, who plays Chad. Through Burns, he met actress Trina Shumsonk, who plays a prostitute named Carmen, the third character in the show. Through Shumsonk, he met director Michael Gray, founding artistic director of City Theater Company in Wilmington, DE, and coincidentally, director of a drug rehab facility in Philadelphia.
With this group, Shaw founded the Over Easy Theatre Company and began efforts to bring “Having a Ball With God” to the stage.
The first developmental reading took place earlier this year in Bristol before it was accepted into the Swarthmore New Play Festival in July, where a staged reading was performed with a different director and actors. The first full productions took place this month at the New York New Works Festival, where it qualified for the finals.
But even in Shaw’s moment of triumph, there was tragedy. His step-father, Robert Sparich, who raised him alongside Shaw’s mother, Kathleen Bloschichak, died suddenly at age 69 on Sept. 2 — two days before “Having a Ball With God” was scheduled to premiere in New York.
“He’s had so much personal shit, this is like the best and worst year of his life,” Jolly says. “But he’s been utterly optimistic and positive about the possibilities of getting to wherever this gets. He’s really stoked, really excited. I would say there’s self-worth in the work, and the work is getting recognized, and boy does that feel good.”
Heartbreak … and humor
There’s no denying that “Having a Ball With God” is a heavy play. According to the official synopsis, “the show explores the journey that each addict takes: from the uneasiness that causes alcohol or other drugs to be used as a means to escape, through the many bottoms, including homelessness, overdose, insanity and loss after loss … to a moment of clarity that prompts getting help, and the realization that staying clean is as unique as it is universal.”
In a lengthy, spoiler-filled recap of the story, Shaw describes two intense confrontations between Chad and JC, a revealing experience with tarot cards, both characters’ fading grasp on reality and an ending that reminds audiences that “people struggle with relapse and struggle with drug use despite being completely aware of their sickness and all that stuff.”
But the play is by no means dark and dreary.
“It’s laid with comedy, thank God,” Shaw says. “No one would want to watch it if it wasn’t. There are a lot of great moments of wordplay and quick wit. It’s really very funny. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t want to watch. I wouldn’t even be able to write it.”
Jolly describes Shaw’s playwriting debut as theater that non-theater lovers will enjoy.
“I always said, even in its first incarnation, if you don’t like theater or you don’t care to see a play, you’ll enjoy this because it’s stimulating and evocative. I compare it to punk rock theater. If all you’re interested in is ‘Oklahoma,’ fine, that’s cool, but this will stimulate you. If you think this is going to be boring, it’s not boring, it’s the furthest thing from boring. Perhaps you don’t want to feel something, but that’s on you, this will make you feel something.
“For a first time out, the story is just powerful and it’s heavy and it’s hard and it’s beautiful and it’s tragic and it’s funny in that self-effacing sort of way. I mean, Dave’s an amazing musician, and outside the storyline, there’s just so much rich verbiage and really rich sentences and phraseology.”
Shaw’s goal beyond New York is to stage a local production of the play somewhere in Bucks County.
But wherever or whenever “Having a Ball With God” is staged next, he’s humbled by the fact that his own words — words that have helped him through so much personal turmoil — are now doing the same thing for total strangers.
“In a sense it’s terrifying, there’s a vulnerability to it,” Shaw says of bringing the play to the public. “At least initially, at the first developmental reading with an audience of 30 people, some of which I didn’t know, I’m like, oh my God, this is my very, very, very personal story, so there was a lot of anxiety and fear. Is this so absurd, so extreme that it will turn people off of the story? “I think it’s an extremely important topic for our society to get past the shame and stigmatization of drug addiction and mental health issues. That’s why I’m compelled to be as vulnerable as I am. At that first reading, I was particularly worried: Is it any good, will people like it?
“Now, that doesn’t cross my mind nearly as often. Now, I’m just overwhelmed by the reception of it.”
If you go New York New Works Theatre Festival Finals Gala
When: 7 p.m. Saturday Sept. 22
Where: The Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. (between 9th and 10th avenues), NY, NY
Tickets: $37.25 Information: www.nynwtheatrefestival.com
More information on “Having a Ball With God”: www.habwgod.com