Non-liquid courage: On sobriety, artistic journeys and “The White Chip”

Cocktails at lunch or various work functions were often the norm, as was vodka poured into a Diet Coke here and there throughout the day. As the years passed, though, it subtly turned into drinking at other times — in larger volumes and more and more by himself. Sean Daniels, the former artistic director and co-founder of Atlanta’s dad’s Garage, He didn’t realize he was an alcoholic until he was fired by the Actors Theater of Louisville in 2011 and subsequently found himself in rehab. He’d hit his rock bottom.

Daniels shares his story in the autobiographical play white Chip, making its Atlanta debut on January 25 at Dad’s Garage, as part of a co-production with Theatrical Outfit. Each theater’s artistic director, Tim Stoltenberg and Matt Torney, respectively, is co-directing. In the play, Andrew Benator stars as Steven, who has a great life and is close to getting his dream job of heading up a major theater company. . . until his life implodes. Tom Key and Gina Rickicki flesh out approximately 30 other characters in the main character’s life, including his parents and an AA sponsor.

Fresh out of Florida State University, where he says alcohol of all shapes and sizes was available, Daniels launched Dad’s Garage into prominence in his mid-20s with offerings such as Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Cannibal! The Musical and Graham Chapman’s O Happy Day. We’d do the dumbest rehearsals, rum-throughs instead of run-throughs, and we had to do whatever your character did in the show and drink as much as they drank. We sold beer by the bucket, and it was a huge hit. People loved it, and on New Year’s Eve, I would do shots with the audience. It was part of the joyfulness of it all,” he says.

Matt Horgan (left), associate artistic director of Dad’s Garage, with Sean Daniels

After working at Dad’s Garage from 1995 to 2004, Daniels left to take a job as the associate artistic director at California Shakespeare Theatre. From there, he moved to the Actors Theater of Louisville, where he was the associate artistic director for four years before becoming the interim artistic director. He thought his destiny was to shed that interim status.

But when his bosses at Louisville found out the extent of his drinking problem, they let him go. Daniels feels that is a common reaction. “Nobody has any idea what to do when you get into a situation like that. No one has the training of what the next steps are.”

When he took a freelance directing job at the Cincinnati Playhouse, he received active-shooter training while there, which is part of being a guest artist, but nothing is available for artists about mental-health training. “You are more likely in the arts to encounter someone with mental-health issues than hopefully someone with a gun.” Thus, Daniels is not bitter about Louisville because he now realizes that higher-ups didn’t have a plan of action on how to proceed.

After losing his job — and also going through a divorce at the time — Daniels became suicidal. He’d also crashed his car the year before, yet rationalized it by telling himself everyone gets a DUI at some point. Daniels reached out to his mother, who was able to land him in the Florida rehab center Breakthroughs. (Ironically, he had called her on the one-year anniversary of her own sobriety.) As he made it through the traumatic days of detox, he tried to make sense of it all. “You are coming out of a fog,” he recalls. How did you go from being an interior artistic director to sitting in a room with bad carpet in Jacksonville? What series of events happened?

Recovery has forever changed his life. Sean Daniels, now 50, relishes the positives.

After his stint in rehab, people came up to Daniels and shared their own stories, some confessing they had been sober for 25 years. He was sympathetic but had mixed reactions. “Part of me was like ‘That is amazing and I am proud of you’ and the other was, ‘Where the **** were you — why did I feel like I was the only person in our industry that could not hold their liquor?’”

Daniels knew he needed to find a way to forge ahead and take each day, as those in recovery know, one day at a time. On day three of rehab, he turned to a familiar ally: storytelling. “I had always known theater, and that is how I handled things. I didn’t know how to process it any other way. Even when he sobered up and began looking for future employment and freelance gigs, he kept plugging away at the project.

The white chip Premiered five years later in 2016 at Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Daniels went to work as the artistic director in 2014 and, later, at City Theater in Pittsburgh. Tweaking it and getting it ready was frightening, not just baring his soul on stage but finding the right balance of comedy and drama. “What jokes horrified people, and which ones did they enjoy?” he routinely wondered. When the play made its 2019 off-Broadway debut at 59 E59 Theatres, The New York Times gave it a positive review and included it in their Critic’s Picks selections.

Even those who had known Daniels for years were surprised when they saw the play at how rough it had been for him. Many said afterward that they had no idea, even close friends. They remember parts of it.”

Sobriety has been a challenge in all sorts of ways. The main one, after eleven Christmases, has been re-learning the art of socializing. “This amazing crutch you have built, your coping mechanism, is not there. You have to go out on sober dates, have sober sex. All these things you have not done in forever as an adult. For many of us, you’re now a 15-year-old boy again, and you have to figure out how to talk to people again without a few drinks before you work up courage.

Post-recovery, Daniels has worked at Merrimack, as the artistic director at the Arizona Theater Company, and, in September, he became the associate director of the Florida Studio Theater and the director of The Recovery Project, the company’s new initiative, which he hopes to Heal the stigma of addiction and recovery. He’s also remarried to former Atlanta theater artist Veronika Duerr. The two met in 2012 at Dad’s Garage’s BaconFest, where Duerr was running the kissing booth. They got married in 2015 and have one daughter, Vivien, born in 2018.

Sean Daniels with his wife, theater artist Veronika Duerr, and daughter, Vivien

Recovery has forever changed his life but these days Daniels, now 50, relishes the positives. “I’d probably have a wildly different career [if not for this]. [Louisville] was doing a search for the next artistic director, and I felt it was me, and then it wasn’t me because I had been fired. I think my career is drastically different because of that.” He takes solace in the Joseph Campbell quote.We must be willing to let go of the life we ​​planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

The challenge and prospect of being able to help others in his new role motivates him. “We want to find a way to support and talk about these things — have those conversations instead of waiting until it’s too late. This is not a new thing. Addiction was declared a disease in the ’50s. I really want to focus on artists because artists have the possibility of changing national perceptions and conversations. You change artists, that changes the narrative — and that is what changes the world. That is where we have to begin.


Jim Farmer covers theater and films for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog, Douglas.

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