T.J. Dawe brings mind bending Medicine

"I always thought that hallucinogens would either reveal powerful things about me, or that I would lose my mind completely," says T.J. Dawe in a conversation about Medicine, his upcoming theatre show.

“I always thought that hallucinogens would either reveal powerful things about me, or that I would lose my mind completely,” says T.J. Dawe in a conversation about Medicine, his upcoming theatre show at the Old Fire Hall.

“People would talk about taking mushrooms and getting all giggly, but for me it was never like that.”

But it’s not recreational drug use that drives the plot of Dawe’s 12th one-man show. It’s the controversial Peruvian shamanistic plant medicine ayahuasca (pronounced “aya-waska”), a kind of tea made by boiling segments of the vine Banisteriopsis with a companion plant. The resulting mixture contains several powerful hallucinogens, including DMT.

The Vancouver-based playwright, actor and director wasn’t trying ayahuasca for fun when he and 24 other participants ingested it at a retreat led by addictions-recovery specialist Dr. Gabor Mate.

Instead, Dawe was exploring what he calls a profound sense of alienation.

“One of the things that happens when people take ayahuasca is that there’s a lot of vomiting, but that’s not what scared me,” Dawe relates.

“When I understood we would only be ingesting the drug twice in that week, I wondered, what are we going to do the rest of the time? When I realized it would be group therapy, I was extremely uncomfortable.”

It’s hard to imagine the talkative, likeable Dawe as an outsider. A fearless performer with lightning wit, he has busted guts and opened hearts across the Fringe festival circuit for more than a decade with his biographically-inspired monologues, starting with Tired Cliches in 1997.

His 2001 show The Slipknot crackled with insights into the ridiculous details and misunderstandings that can clog menial-labour jobs. Then the play won the 2001 Just for Laughs Comedy Award, widening Dawe’s audiences from a small group of alternative culture mavens to a fan base that regularly gives him sold out shows.

Dawe peppers each play with humour, a strategy that bonds audiences to him and to each other. Over the years he has deepened the self-revelations in his monologues.

To create and perform his 2008 play Totem Figures, the “King of the Fringe” imagined what his own Mount Rushmore would look like.

“It would include my father, for one … It became a kind of a game for me, I would ask people what they would include on their Sgt. Pepper’s album cover. One person said Gabor Mate.”

From there, Dawe learned about Dr. Mate’s work as a Vancouver medical doctor known for combining science and compassion to help people face addictions, from heroin to workaholism.

Dawe read all four of Dr. Mate’s books and found personal insights that were so helpful, he shared the books with his sister and mother. “It gave me better ways to communicate with them,” he says. “So this experience became (the 2011 play) Lucky 9.”

By the time Dawe worked up the courage to invite Dr. Mate to Lucky 9, the doc had already heard good reviews of the performances at the Uno Festival in Victoria and had tickets for himself and his family. Dr. Mate introduced himself after seeing the show and a few months later, Dawe was excitedly heading to Vancouver Island for the retreat that changed his life.

Medicine follows the nuances of Dawe’s stomach-twisting, mind-opening week, from initial skepticism to the irritation of sleeping in the common room to the odd experience of believing his blood is made of purple sand.

A white shaman named Dave helps him handle the doses. And from there, thanks to Dr. Mate’s psychological detective work, he moves to revealing a secret about himself in front of that group of former-strangers that he had never discussed with anyone in his entire life.

Medicine is a turning point for this performer professionally as well as psychologically.

“I used to want 100 per cent artistic control over the whole thing,” says Dawe, “but I learned that I had a disbelief about myself, thinking that I had nothing to offer others and they had nothing to offer me. Now I’m directing a project that involves three other people, and I’m not even in the show.”

But that’s another story. As is the long list of Dawe’s projects as dramaturge, director and always as playwright (his Marathon opens at the Orlando Fringe Festival in May).

Medicine played to rave reviews and sold-out shows, including a double run in Vancouver. For Yukoners, Dawe’s memories of a tobogganing accident he experienced near Whitehorse before he turned four will add an extra layer of connection.

The mind is an intricate organism. Dawe’s quest for connection, through wild hallucinations and cool observations of the ordinary, may add some curious hues to our internal self-portraits, too.

The show plays at the Old Fire Hall on February 27 and 28 and March 1, each at 7:30 p.m.

Meg Walker is a Yukon writer and artist.

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