Making Light of Drug Abuse, to Make a Point By GERRI HIRSHEY
EVERY spring they crop up, dark and worrisome as nightshade amid the tea roses of prom corsages: High school safety assemblies. Most often they are earnest and sobering “scared straight” campaigns against drug and alcohol use and drunken driving. But this year, Avon High School parents and school administrators tried out a new weapon in the war against bad choices: laughter. Gloriously irreverent laughter.
As students filed into the auditorium, speculation was hopeful: “I hear this dude is the bomb.” Dude is a Boston-based actor and comedian, John Morello. Mr. Morello wrote and performs an hourlong show called “I Am Dirt,” which his Web site describes as “a one-man show about substance abuse and choices.”
Since he began performing it in late 2001, “Dirt” has become so popular that Mr. Morello is on the road for more than 100 days a year, coast to coast and in Canada, in city, suburban and rural schools, churches and synagogues. He is summoned to Midwestern towns where crystal meth is a scourge, to Southern cities losing children to OxyContin and teenage binge drinking.
“It almost seems as if you feel you’re immortal,” Jim Pappa, an assistant principal at Avon, told his juniors and seniors as he introduced the program. “I always get worried at this time of year.”
Taking the stage with a bit of patter from his days as a stand-up comedian, Mr. Morello assured his wary audience: “I don’t preach, teach or lecture. It’s a show.”
In jeans, T-shirt and hoodie, he looks far younger than his 39 years, morphing easily into several characters. Among them: an unintentionally hilarious teenage poetry contest winner; Melissa, a loner Goth girl (and date rape drug victim) tormented by mean girls; and the perplexed but loving grandpa of a troubled high school philosopher called Pi, nicknamed for his student number, 3.14. Their stories unspool and interlace around an overall theme: choices, consequences and the balm of compassion.
The kids roared throughout. Here is Pi, ruefully describing his pal Jason, who was quite bright until he started smoking weed daily: “The wheels are turning, but the gerbil is dead.” Pi, on the drug habits of his own family: “My mom’s on Prozac, my brother’s on Ritalin and my father takes Viagra.” His explanation for why he takes the feel-good drug Ecstasy: most of the time, he wants to be dirt. As in maybe not alive anymore. Pi’s father is another kind of addict; his drug of choice is success, at the expense of family life.
The message is neatly, tastily wrapped in layers of fast food, mall and music references. There were stomps and howls of gleeful recognition when Pi asks a girl how she could bully Melissa while wearing a “Save Darfur” T-shirt. When Pi lands in rehab, the scene is as mordantly funny as any Nurse Ratched hissy fit from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Mr. Morello comes by his vérité honestly. In his onstage postscript, he explained that the day after his 12th birthday, his oldest brother, Henry, then 20, died in a drunken driving accident. His other brother, Glenn, “the one who slept in the top bunk and broke my Hungry Hungry Hippos game” became a heroin addict and after many rehabs and two years of sobriety, bought a bag of heroin. “He overdosed and died alone on Jan. 30, 2003.”
In closing, Mr. Morello invoked good sense and hope—with a rim shot. He reminded students that according to state law, what happens in a guidance counselor’s office stays there, “just like in Vegas.” So talk to somebody.
Afterward, sitting in a borrowed guidance office, Mr. Morello said he developed his show from “shoeboxes and backpacks full of monologues and stand-up I’d written over the years.” He was stunned to walk away with 35 bookings when he showcased the material before a conference of educators in New Jersey in 2002. “I didn’t intend to be getting up for 7:30 a.m. gigs,” he said. “And I’ve never seen myself as a motivational speaker.”
Nor had he envisioned himself as the ever-hopeful caretaker of his addicted brother, driving him home to Boston from Detroit “as he detoxed in the cab of the U-Haul.” He learned that addicts, teenagers or adult, are cunning liars. “But I always stayed a sucker for my brother, and I’m glad I did. Yeah, he stole my stereo. But I never stopped believing he could change and trying to help him get there. I’d do it all over again.”
He did change the show after his brother’s overdose. “Pi used to die. He doesn’t now. So many school performances are sad for sadness’ sake.”
Now the father of a year-old girl, Mr. Morello said he understands the anxious love that keeps him so well booked. ..(But I won't ever) “dumb it down,” he said. “These kids are way too smart to disrespect that way.”
Mr. Morello headed for a cafeteria lunch, pulling the wheelie suitcase with his sound equipment and props. Students stopped him every few feet with thanks, handshakes and a chorus of “awesomes.” In the spirit of his show, Mr. Morello offers up his favorite review, delivered by a bespectacled middle schooler: “This was way better than last year’s melanoma assembly.”
New York Times, June 8, 2008
Berkshire Eagle, February 29, 2012
LENOX -- John Morello is the kind of stranger you'd want your children to talk to.
When he says something, teenagers listen.
On Tuesday, Morello performed "Dirt," his one-man show about substance abuse and choices for staff, students and school committee members at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. He performs again at the school, for the public, on Monday.
The show's content is all-too familiar to the school, which, just before New Year's Eve, lost 17-year-old Remy Kirshner, a junior, in a car crash. Last week, the driver, 18-year-old Philip Baruch Jr., was indicted by a jury, charged with motor vehicle homicide under the influence of alcohol and speeding.
Since the accident, the Lenox school district has offered counseling services, forums for students and parents to talk about teen drinking and drug use, and there have been other town meetings.
But during Morello's performance, students were given permission to rise above the gravity, to laugh.
"We chose this because it's not a finger-pointing lecture," said Lenox Memorial Principal Michael Knybel.
During "Dirt," there were moments of silence -- the golden kind that results with gentle introspection -- from the crowd.
Afterward, Morello received enduring applause. And, students like seniors Peter Vahle and Niko Brattke lingered to thank Morello and shake the man's hand.
Vahle told The Eagle he thought the performance was "really effective and more engaging."
"I think this was a way better way to address things," said Brattke. "It's different when someone's more personal rather than showing statistics about alcohol deaths."
Morello respectfully, but frankly, used the venue to deliver truths, some uncomfortable to acknowledge, such as the fact that yes, kids do drugs and drink alcohol. So do adults, whose cabinets harbor drugs and alcohol.
During the show, Morello plays four primary characters, and a few minor characters.
The character of David is a high school student who feels isolated from his family and self- medicates his loneliness with ecstasy and prescription pills. But David explains that "Drugs have nothing to do with whether you're a good person or a bad person."
He refers to Jason, an affable "stoner" who sticks up for a cousin who is bullied.
David and Jason described the ups and downs of a life in a quiet town, and a high school where the "mean girls" wear "Save Darfur" T-shirts and peace signs.
"They're the Peace Club," David realizes while intervening on behalf of a girl named Melissa.
Melissa's a bit of a loner, portrayed by Morello wearing a black rain coat beneath a black umbrella. She has one good friend named Stacy, though they live opposite lives.
"My mother says that if I'm ever drunk, just call for a ride. Stacy's parents would kill her and take her phone away," Melissa says.
While struggling with the mean girls and a night at a party she'd rather forget, Melissa recalls advice from her late father: "He said, ‘There's no remote for people. You can't change what people say or think. You can only control yourself.'"
Ultimately, David, too, seeks solace in a trustworthy adult -- his grandfather, Hank, a 79-year-old World War II veteran. Hank acknowledges the fact that, as he struggled as a 19-year-old in the war, his teen grandson has his struggles, such as "the drugs."
But Hank is devoted. He says, "[My grandson] tells me everything, and I believe him."
After the show, Morello opened up with the audience about his own substance abuse, dropping out and re-entering high school, and the deaths of his brothers, Henry, to a drunken driving accident and Glenn to a final bag of heroin.
The bright spots for Morello includes the compassion he gets from his 4-year-old daughter, and a Latin teacher who recognized Morello's penchant for humor and helped him get into college.
"You have to face reality at some point, and for me, it took a long time," he told the audience, "but sometimes a little sense of humor helps us talk about the difficult stuff."
Health Care News, November, 2012
Hope from the Dirt Popular One-man Show Gets Second Life as Graphic Novel
By JOSEPH BEDNAR
“You took something so painful in your life, and made it worth something.”
In the decade plus since John Morello launched his one-man dramatic show “Dirt,” he has kept an ever growing collection of notes and e-mails from teenagers (and some adults) from across the country, thanking him for speaking with them — not at them — about drugs, bullying, and other issues they face every day.
The girl who wrote him (by hand) in 2009 is right — much of Morello’s work is born of personal pain. And that pain has only increased. “Dirt” was written in 2001, during the years when his brother, Glenn, struggled with heroin addiction; he died early in 2003.
“When he passed, I had a show about two weeks after that, and as hard as it was, the best thing for me was to get back on stage,” he said. “Along with going to therapy and grief counseling in my own life, it was the best form of grief counseling in the world, and it also made me feel like what my brother suffered would not be in vain.
“For all the things he had wrong with him because of his disease of addiction,” Morello continued, “there were so many great things about him — his bravery, and his love, and his sense of humor ... he was a genuinely good man. Those things can live on.”
That spirit lives on not only in “Dirt” — which Morello has long touted as an exciting, thoughtful alternative to the ’just-say-no’ assemblies teenagers have heard dozens of times and usually tune out — but also in a just published graphic novel, the first
in a planned series, based around characters from the show.
“The neat thing about graphic novels is that you can do anything; it’s limitless,” he said. “I felt a graphic novel was the perfect format for this show, especially since a lot of characters have these fantasy dream sequences.”
For this issue’s focus on Behavioral Health, HCN visits this Worcester native who has seen his fair share of tragedy — and may be averting more of it by using multiple artistic media to inspire kids across the U.S.
From One, Many
The idea to create a one-man, multi-character show germinated for some time before Morello took it to the stage.
“I was a touring comic, headlining for six or seven years at various clubs, mostly in the Northeast; sometimes I would go out to California, trying to make it, whatever that means,” he said.
Having a degree in drama, he also busied himself with community theater and Shakespeare productions, but stage opportunities are limited for someone who doesn’t sing or dance, so standup comedy became his main outlet.
Meanwhile, “the underlying personal story was, my brother was a heroin addict, so I would be traveling on the road, calling home to see how he was doing, and when I was home, I tried to stay involved in his recovery as much as I could, going to meetings with him and supporting him. And all the while, I was going on stage, trying to be funny.”
Around this time, he began writing monologues — character studies, actually — and was inspired by performers like Eric Bogosian who were doing innovative things with the solo format.
“When I saw him on stage, I thought, ’wow’ ... I’d always thought there were certain rules about what you could do and couldn’t do on stage,” he told HCN. “But I learned you could do whatever you want, as long as you make it engaging. And it kind of opened my mind to doing a one-man show.”
So Morello developed “Dirt,” featuring a raft of different characters — male and female, young and old — including a young man searching for ecstasy, a college-bound woman who drinks socially, and a young ’dude’ sharing his theories about marijuana and hemp. At one point, Morello mixes in a monologue from a World War II veteran reflecting on his choices in battle and his sacrifices for the present generation. Humor and music play a significant role, too.
Early on, when he was pitching the show, a school invited him to perform, and administrators liked what they saw. Next, he was invited to a teachers’ conference; they were equally impressed.
“I had never really imagined myself performing in an educational setting,” Morello said, noting that he figured he would perform “Dirt” in professional theater settings. But working in schools promised more opportunities, as well as lending a mission to his art.
“I felt like that’s what I wanted to do; it felt good,” he said. “I really felt like I was making a difference, that I’ve got something to say that’s unique and not heavy-handed. At the time, I was washing windows, driving a trolley in Boston, doing a little bit of everything, trying to piece together an income, like most artists do. When I started performing in the educational world, I realized I could make a living from this.”
After launching the show in late 2001, Morello didn’t quit his other jobs until 2006 — “it certainly was no overnight thing” — but he now performs between 100 and 120 shows per year across the country. Some months are busier than others — October is drug awareness month in many school systems, and pre-prom bookings are popular, while the summer largely slows down, except for some camp activity — but “Dirt” is most definitely a full-time job.
Taking to the Page
Still, as the show’s success grew, Morello wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to take it to a different place, and that place, it turned out, was the world of comics.
“I had always liked comics and graphic novels,” he said, starting as a child, when he appreciated both the heroism and humor of Marvel mainstays like the Hulk and SpiderMan — as well as their tortured, loner sides. “They were trying to save the world and save themselves at the same time. I can relate to that.”
For a long time now, he has wanted to write a book, feeling like he has more to say, “but I didn’t want my first book to be a memoir or tearjerker or something from Oprah’s Book of the Month Club. Maybe the day will come when I write more of a biography thing, but not now.”
Instead, he hit on the idea of converting his show into a graphic novel. He went out in search of an artist and found fellow Bay Stater Michael McMenemy, who took Morello’s words and ideas and turned them into a 128-page book — using pencil drawings and India inks, a decidedly old-school approach that appeals to Morello at a time when many comics are produced totally with Photoshop. The next hire was Joshua Jensen, a colorist from Texas who received the artwork online and colored it digitally.
He financed the early work and paid his collaborators out of his own pocket, then took to Kickstarter — a crowd-funding website where artists and others solicit support their projects — to raise $30,000 for the initial press run. That effort was successful, and Dirt: The Graphic Novel is being printed now, to be sold at school assemblies, at comicbook stores, and online at iamdirt.com.
“I don’t think I could have done this 10 years ago,” Morello said of both the creative process and the financing. “I would have had to get a publisher. I couldn’t have done things independently. The software was more expensive and out of reach. Now, it’s a whole new world.”
That independence is of particular importance. “There’s no publisher looking over my shoulder; no schools are telling me what to take out. As a graphic novel, it walks the same same tightrope I walk in my shows: is it edgy enough for young people, yet something schools could get behind? And that’s a hard tightrope to walk.”
He says his characters, both on stage and in the book, are not black and white moral clichés, but flawed, with the same shades of gray teens recognize in their own lives. And their response has been overwhelming.
“During your show, I realized that ’drugs’ can be more than just weed and crack; it can be anything,” said the girl with the handwritten note. “My dad’s drug is drinking alcohol — every night. My sister’s drug is physically abusing me — to let out her anger. My mom’s drug is verbally abusing me — so she can feel superior. My drug ... is my eating disorder.”
And yet: “Thank you for reminding me that no matter how I’ve been treated and what I’ve been through, I am not DIRT.”
“That’s what keeps me going,” Morello said. “We all like to be told we’re doing something well, whether it’s an 8-year old hitting a baseball or a 40-year old trying to get a promotion at work. Of course, it feels good if it’s a teacher telling me that, or a parent. But when I hear from a student, that’s the e-mail or note I want. If I’m having a lousy day, that’s the one I read, and I understand that I’m on the right path; I’m where I’m supposed to be.”
Morello’s personal tragedy brought about an ironic change in the show. In the early years, the lead character died at the end. After Glenn’s death, Morello altered that fate. “It was too hard for me to go through that on stage, to have this character die and talk so much about it.”
But there was another, more philosophical reason for the change.
“So many assemblies boil down to, ’do drugs, and you’ll die,’ he told HCN. “But there are a lot of things poor choices can do besides killing us. And I don’t want to be just another assembly. I don’t think fear of death is a great motivator for anyone, especially young people. At 13, you don’t think you’re gonna die anyway.”
Rather, “what I chose to zero in on is our connection to each other, our relationships. When we know we matter to someone, and that someone matters to us, that’s what will motivate us.”
The Patriot Ledger, March 1, 2010
A funny thing happened on way to drug awareness
EDITORIAL — Editor’s note: Readers often comment that there should be more good news in the paper. While it’s true that there’s more than enough bad news to go around, on Mondays on the editorial page we will highlight some of the many good news stories that appear on our pages on a regular basis.
If nothing else, teenagers are renown for locking psychological and emotional doors between themselves and those they perceive as their arch-nemesis: grown-ups.
Parents, educators and others responsible for their well-being are often frustrated to learn that the keys that used to open those locks no longer do.
Luckily, John Morello has a key that works.
The Boston native’s youth, charisma and comedic skills gain him access others are denied. And he doesn’t squander it.
He uses it to deliver information that could save lives; information that would likely be ignored if it came from an “authority figure.”
Morello teaches – in ways so subtle as to be mistaking for entertainment – the dangers of drugs.
His one-man show, called “Dirt,” recently had students at Hanover High School laughing – and thinking – about the subject.
A series of monologues, it also deals with other important issues, such as sex and racism.
Despite its basis in comedy, tragedy is what inspires Morello to take his show to high schools across the country. He lost one brother to a drunken driver and another to a heroin overdose.
It’s odd – and for some possibly uncomfortable – to think about someone encouraging teenagers to laugh about a problem coursing so rampantly through this generation that it is now described as an epidemic; one that has killed more than 3,000 people in Massachusetts over the past seven years.
A recent study by the state Department of Public Health concluded that opiate overdose is now the leading cause of death in the state for adults under age 25.
But sometimes humor is the only agent that can penetrate teen defenses; defenses built on the notion that they are invulnerable and that others are using the guise of concern simply to oppress them.
So it’s OK that they’re laughing. That means they’re listening. And maybe that means they live.
North Jersey.Com, April 8, 2013
WAYNE — Middle school students were treated to a special assembly recently that both entertained and taught life lessons.
"Dirt" is a one-man show portrayed by Detroit, Mich. born actor John Morello. After 10 years, it has become one of the most popular presentations for students. Morello brings to the stage 15 years of acting experience and comedic work but his heart is really aimed at helping people struggling with addiction, something as a teen he witnessed friends and family cope with. And later while working as a teacher in a treatment center, he saw students struggle with family cycles of self-abuse.
And it's from this experience that Morello, a one time high school drop out who now holds a bachelor of arts degree in theatre arts, has created his show "Dirt," a fictional story of five different characters who are connected by the hardships that alcohol and drug abuse share. Morello also addresses the topic of bullying.
What's different about Morello's show from any other anti-drug message constantly drilled at youngsters is that Morello addresses the topic with a comedic undertone and still brings home the possible consequences that come with abusing drugs and alcohol.
The show was presented to all three of the district's middle schools on behalf of the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse with assistance from volunteer organizer Karen Marron, and culminated with an evening finale at Anthony Wayne Middle School for district parents, most of whom were in awe of Morello's raw talent and heartfelt delivery of a life saving message.
"He maintained the focus of our students wonderfully," said AWMS Principal Michael Ben-David. "Using a combination of wit, humor, and intelligence without being in your face, John Morello did an amazing job. He's not a motivational speaker per say but he helps kids to understand how their choices will impact their lives without forcing it on them."
The show ran about an hour and was followed by a question and answer portion where Morello answered many questions from students.
"By the time he was finished with all five characters, most everyone in the room connected with someone he portrayed, or something he said," said Robbin Gulino, coordinator of the Wayne Alliance.
Morello takes his inspiration from having lost two brothers – one to a drunken driving accident and one to heroin addiction.
"I don't believe fear works as a long term motivator. But I do believe that love and compassion can help a person be their best," Morello said in a press release.
Funds for the show were donated by a local family and matched by the Wayne Alliance for the Prevention of Substance Abuse, according to Gulino.
"This program really seems to register an impactful message with students," said Laura Stinziano, Wayne Alliance vice chairperson, volunteer organizer, and board of education member. "The students asked such thoughtful questions, which tell a grand story of getting children's attention without using scare tactics."