TJ Dawe reveals two secrets in his latest one-man show: one he’d never shared with anyone, not a therapist, not a girlfriend, and one he’d been keeping from himself.
They were secrets exposed during a 2011 retreat led by addictions physician and author Gabor Mate when Dawe and 21 others twice drank psychotropic tea brewed from Peruvian plants.
“It looks a bit like Baileys,” Dawe says in his monologue about the experience. “It don’t taste like Baileys.”
Dawe relives the trips and transformation in Medicine, which plays at the Firehall Arts Centre, Jan. 3 to 13.
The writer, performer, director and dramaturg signed up for the weeklong retreat at a hobby farm near Victoria. Dawe had “sheepishly” invited Mate to a performance of his 2010 show Lucky 9 that referred to Mate’s writings, and a few days after the show, Mate invited him to a retreat.
“He was very worried about seeming like a greasy self-promoting doctor who is like ‘Ah yes, another disciple. Come to my retreat, give me lots of money,’ that kind of thing,” Dawe said. “But it was more a matter of the fact that the potential of ayahuasca, especially in the context of these kinds of retreats, is that you can find out the truth, whether the truth is what you wanted it to be or not.”
A flattered and star-struck Dawe seized the opportunity for further self-reflection and six or seven months later, he found himself in a weeklong group therapy session that was punctuated by two psychotropic trips.
“My main issue, just to put it in a really general way, is a feeling of separateness, especially in social situations, a feeling like… I’m not a part of it, and this can include just being in a car with some of my best friends,” he said.
The first time he drank the tea Dawe felt more alienated than ever before. The second time, he saw visions that helped him see the negative story he’d been telling himself about his upbringing was out of whack.
“I was flooded with these feelings of happiness and love and belonging that I’d left entirely out of the picture because they didn’t fit the story that I had been telling myself,” he said. “And I just discovered how much love was there that I hadn’t been willing to acknowledge or accept.”
Dawe also shared his distressing secret at the retreat. “That was the big breakthrough moment in the retreat for me, initially, anyway, was just being able to say it out loud and not feel excluded from the group,” he said.
Turning the dramatic, transformative experience into a performance piece was only natural for the veteran Fringe Festival performer who’s built a career touring autobiographical monologues. But he initially shared it with trepidation, expecting to see audience members walk out. Instead, Dawe says, in his rapid-fire way, his followers told him Medicine was their favourite work yet.
He’s performed it at Fringe festivals in Orlando, Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton and says after shows in each city audience members sought him out to discuss aspects of the show that had grabbed them.
“Which was very interesting because I deliberately made the story as specific to my own experiences as I possibly could,” Dawe said. “And then, time after time, people would relate to it in such detail that it blew me away. It really emphasized that my feelings of separateness were an illusion and that our experiences as people are a lot more alike than we are led to believe.”
Dawe doesn’t know whether the insights gleaned at the retreat constitute a permanent change in him. But he’s felt fully engaged as part of a team that’s bringing the PostSecret blog, where individuals send postcards that expose both whimsical and tragic secrets, to the stage.
He also expects to see his play Toothpaste and Cigars, which he co-wrote with Mike Rinaldi, screen as a feature film called The F Word, starting Daniel Radcliffe, in 2013.
Those keen to face their demons in a retreat with Mate no longer have that option. Dawe said Health Canada threatened the addictions doctor with criminal prosecution a week before a documentary called The Jungle Prescription about his exploration of ayahuasca was to appear on CBC’s The Nature of Things in November 2011.
So Dawe urges audience members to write their federal representatives and Health Canada to reconsider their stance.
Mate will participate in talkbacks after many of the shows. For more information, see firehallartscentre.ca.