The first time I ran light and sound, I was a wreck. Coming onto The Hermit Of Forth Fisher during tech week, my inexperience shone. During that first show, I got panicky and flustered, desperately trying to wrangle the jittery light board.
I was unsuccessful. Cues hopped ahead, sound cut off too soon. When I exited the theater that night, I felt embarrassed. Ken Vest, who played the homeless mute, Empie, walked outside, smiled warmly, and said:
“Good job, pilgrim.”
It lifted me a little. For the rest of the show, while there were occasional hiccups, I ran most of it well. By the end of the run, I had mastered the lightboard.
While these tech issues were unpredictable, one thing about the show was consistent. Each night ended with Ken nodding, “Good job, pilgrim!”
His hair would still be mussed, many times, still wearing his costume. Grey, tattered sweats.
“Night, Captain!” I’d reply.
When Ken met me outside of Port City Java the other day, he was wearing a green flannel shirt and tee. Well-groomed and buttoned up, he’s no longer Empie.
I asked Ken to meet so I could profile his latest project, an original production called Inside Job. Inside Job, a story about family, addiction, and loss, is a show aimed to start an open dialogue in communities about heroin use. The play, which features a unique plot and original play was inspired by events of Ken’s own life. Specifically, about his son, Jesse, who struggled with heroin use and overdosed in college.
I was in unfamiliar territory with this interview. Growing up in Upstate New York, I never had a lot of exposure to drug abuse… though now, I know it was a problem there, too. It’s a problem everywhere.
I didn’t know what questions were okay to ask. Leading up to our conversation, I tried to think of all the ways I could prevent making Ken uncomfortable. I didn’t want to offend or be insensitive.
So instead of diving into the process of writing Inside Job, the thing I said was:
“Tell me about Jesse.”
Jesse Vest was a smart, intuitive, and creative child. Ken speaks of him very fondly, calling him “honest” and “loyal”. The listed characteristics are accompanied with a warm smile.
“One of his friends told us, as we were planning the memorial,” Ken says. “That there’s not an ounce of bullshit in Jesse.”
He recalls a story about Jesse growing up. When a dinner guest prompted him to finish his vegetables, warning him that if he didn’t, they wouldn’t come back for dinner. To which Jesse replied,
“Well, so what? We don’t invite you. You come here on your own anyway.”
As he grew older, Jesse had a natural ability for baseball, which bored him. Instead, he learned how to play the guitar, which became his passion. Refusing to cover music, he wrote his own instead. Ken still has the recordings, and was kind enough to share those recordings with me.
Ken describes the noise that once bellowed out of their family basement. Aside from Jesse’s inclination to make music, he was also a talented artist. Ken recalls one of his illustrations in particular, a vibrant figure of a young man with a tail, suspended over a body of water.
“I don’t know what it meant,” Ken says. “If anything.”
With birds chirping, and trucks occasionally stopping on the street besides us, Ken continues to color the details of Jesse’s life. How he suffered from dyslexia, how he studied sound at a community trade school in Boston. Ken speaks admirably about Jesse’s addition counselor in Massachusetts, who didn’t “put up with any bullshit.”
He then attended the University of San Francisco. Before he died, Jesse had not been involved with any rehab programs yet in the area. Ken says he’s not sure if this was the reason for the overdose, and doesn’t try to attribute any meaning to Jesse’s death.
“We knew he was using out there,” Ken says.
“I learned a lot of things after he died. Which is one of the reasons I started writing.”
We briefly discuss Ken’s belief in God. Though he says he “believes”, he says he doesn’t agree with the people who believe that everything happens for a reason. Instead, Ken sees the world as chaotic, and believes we can all find whatever meaning and purpose from doing our best.
Ken is well known around Wilmington, having had on-stage experience at Thalian Hall and Red Barn theater. Inside Job, a two-act play, will be produced with Big Dawg Productions in January 2018.
Ken talked about the development of the story, and credits Artistic Director Steve Vernon with the completion of the final script. I can’t help but recall a rehearsal of The Laramie Project, the first show I ever worked on with Steve Vernon. Stone-faced, he addressed the cast one evening about the significance of the production.
“This is important, but hard work you’re doing,” he said. “You’re doing this community a service by putting on this show.”
Steve was right about the work. Each night was emotionally draining. Connecting with the characters, who were in fact, real people, was an exercise that required constant introspection and understanding of the subject matter.
Inside Job, which shares depictions of real life people, also does not shy away from difficult scenes. Without giving too much away, a particular scene stands out to me, a conversation between Will and Abby after their son’s funeral.
Will is numb and jaded, while Abby recognizes the bewilderment that comes with grief.
“I need to know how he got the drugs,” Will demands. “What we could have done differently.”
The audience meets Wyatt in the first act, during an uncomfortable confrontation with his parents. It’s a scene that many parents, friends, and families can empathize with – the ongoing argument about a drug problem.
But for some loved ones, Ken tells me later, that fight doesn’t happen. Technology, the same that enables us to stay in touch and updated on anything, everything, also enables dealers and users to get consistent, regular access to drugs. A drug addiction isn’t always obvious, or out in the open.
A goal of Inside Job is to start conversations about drug use sooner, to breathe awareness into communities. As I tell Ken, I had never had such an open conversation about heroin with anyone. In my own small hometown, drug use was never discussed or framed as a community issue.
Heroin was something we only talked about in health class. It was a bad drug, we were told. We should never use it. It would do bad things to us.
And that was it.
The tendency to sweep drug use under the rug isn’t exclusive to any small community or town. The discussions happen in the most painful of moments, during an argument between parents and their children in family kitchens, or reported about sporadically in local papers.
It’s a statistic, not a problem. Well, not a problem that an individual should worry about – if it doesn’t directly involve them.
Ken and I talk a lot about this mentality, and how it actually can help drugs spread. The access, the lack of open dialogue contributes to an environment where people can use and don’t know where to get help. An environment that makes it easy for people to turn their backs on the problem, perhaps hoping it’ll be quiet, or go away on it’s own.
A Perspective On Addiction
Ken describes what he’s learned about addiction, how it’s a disorder that can be treated and managed.
“It’s like a brain disorder,” Ken says, taking a sip from his paper coffee cup.
“The fix, the part of the brain that deals with punishment, reward, and emotions. Getting off heroin, detox, is like breaking up with someone. It’s emotional. It’s the same sort of emotion when you have a love affair, and you break up.”
For a moment, Ken fades away a little, then he’s back with the metaphor that helped him understand Jesse’s addiction.
“He only had one girlfriend,” Ken explains. “Pot.”
“And eventually, heroin.”
There’s never just one way that someone starts using heroin. But according to the Inside Job website, aptly named insidejobheroinkills.com, heroin can be purchased for as little as “$10 and pot costs hundreds of dollars.”
Because of the cost and growing accessibility of the drug, “the economics are obvious.”
For people who start out using “recreationally”, heroin may be a more cost-effective fix – to try out, at least. Without that price tag, or the same kind of distribution, heroin would lose more and more of it’s power.
Next Steps For Inside Job
I’m not naïve. I know it takes more than hiking up the cost of a drug to solve a problem, especially one as widespread as heroin. While the knowledge I can gather from the internet and through personal experience can’t properly summarize the all of the ways drug abuse can be prevented, I know for a fact that endeavors like Ken’s can certainly help.
Ken hopes to bring Inside Job to communities all over the country, to combat the spread and increasing use of heroin with open dialogue. After a successful Kickstarter run last year, Phase 2 of the project will raise funds to promote the show and get public engagement by implementing a nationwide marketing campaign.
The goal is to get the show in 30+ towns struggling with the heroin crisis. As the Kickstarter explains, the significance behind the promotion is to help communities see the human cost of heroin use.
During our conversation, Ken told me about how when Jesse was little, he used to chase him around.
“Go, Jesse, Go!” He’d yell.
“I wish I could have done that for him later in life,” Ken said.
I’d argue that he is.