Hope Takes Center Stage

Let's Talk: Addiction & Recovery Podcast
High five at sunset

Writer Maggie Moe and composer Joshua Vranas are telling a new story about addiction and recovery that does away with shame and stigma. Instead of normalizing old stereotypes and outdated archetypes, Moe and Vranas wrote and scored a musical, My Pet Dragon, that tells a different story–one that's centered in hope, trust and courage and, when taking things a day at a time, just how powerful a person can get. 

Using the magic of a dragon, this metaphor, it kinda softens the blow of the words like 'addiction, addict, heroin, opiates,' all those things that people have such a negative association with.

Maggie Moe

0:00:13 William Moyers
We're glad you've joined us today for another interview in our long-running podcast series, Let's Talk. Produced by Hazelden Betty Ford. I'm your host, William C. Moyers. Today in the studio with me, Maggie Moe and Joshua Vranas. Not only have Maggie and Josh turned their up-close and personal struggles with substances into the opportunity to recover, but from it all, they've created a musical production. Onstage and in front of an audience. A musical that involves dragons. Josh, Maggie, dragons? [grins]

0:00:49 Josh Vranas
Yeah, dragons! It's just the perfect creature to embody addiction. And we were really passionate about sort of separating the lead character, Georgia, from her addiction but still have it be very present in her life. And dragons are known to hoard and sort of take over a person's life. Very similar to addiction. [Maggie nods]

0:01:15 William Moyers
How did the dragon get you, Maggie?

0:01:19 Maggie Moe
Great question. Well when I was about 15 years old, I had Lyme's Disease. And I was sick. Had a lot of migraines and so the doctors prescribed me opiates. And that just was the next ten years of my life chasing that dragon, chasing that first high. Alcohol got involved as well. And it wasn't until I was 25 and living back home with my parents that I got the opportunity to go to Betty Ford. And I've been sober now for seven years, since 2016 in January. 

0:01:52 William Moyers

0:01:53 Maggie Moe
Thank you! I know, it's really exciting. I'm really proud of myself.

0:01:57 William Moyers
Yeah, you should be proud of yourself. And to be so young—is it hard to be young and to find recovery?

0:02:03 Maggie Moe
Yes and no. Because I think in a lot of ways, it's hard because a lot of people meet at bars or there's the party scene and that's how people socialize especially when they're younger. But I've found that I can drink a Diet Coke and still hang out with people and get to know people and I'll remember all of it. [laughs] So I think in that sense it's a lot better of a situation.

0:02:26 William Moyers
How did you two meet each other, Josh?

0:02:29 Josh Vranas
We met at NYU at the Graduate Musical Theater Writing program.

0:02:32 William Moyers
New York University?

0:02:33 Josh Vranas
Mmm-hmm. [Maggie nods]

0:02:34 William Moyers

0:02:35 Josh Vranas
In 2019. [looks at Maggie, who nods] And throughout that first year you're sort of paired up randomly with composers and lyricists to write various songs throughout the year. And something just clicked. [looks over at Maggie] We instantly knew from seeing each other's work and then working together that it was destiny to work together. [Both chuckle softly]

0:02:53 William Moyers
And working together means being together. And yet when you were first together, you had a secret. You had a sense that you were not quite like Maggie. Talk to me about that.

0:03:05 Josh Vranas
Yeah, I thought I was the exception. As we all do. And I didn't put the pieces together that addiction runs through my family—

0:03:16 William Moyers

0:03:17 Josh Vranas
—And it was really the COVID pandemic when we were all separated and isolated that it started to get pretty bad for me. But it was at the time that we had just started writing the show and Maggie was so brave in sharing her story and her recovery process that I thought, 'I can do that for myself.' And so, it was really writing the show that got me sober.

0:03:39 William Moyers
So that's really interesting. And did you have a sense, Maggie, that your partner in this creative endeavor might be more like you than he thought he was, or?

0:03:50 Maggie Moe
I always had that sense about Josh. Like probably from when we first met—

0:03:53 William Moyers
Yeah. [smiles widely]

0:03:54 Maggie Moe
—I just saw a lot of similar tendencies and kind of the intensity and passion that he has and I thought, like, hmm, I wonder if he takes this in other areas of his life, that kind of like relentless. Where, you know, that chasing I think that a lot of us want to do. And then yeah, I definitely wondered if me sharing my story would impact how his relationship with alcohol was. And I'm just really glad that it did because I don't know if we could have written the show if you hadn't had that realization. I wonder if you would have even wanted to. 

0:04:27 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm.

0:04:28 Maggie Moe
Because it would have been such a barrier to actually telling the story.

0:04:33 Josh Vranas

0:04:34 Maggie Moe
If you weren't willing to be honest about it, I think. 

0:04:35 William Moyers
Well tell us more about the show. And this story.

0:04:39 Josh Vranas
So it's sort of loosely based on Maggie's personal experience. And it follows the story of Georgia, an 18-year-old who is really bright, extremely intelligent in school and everything—

0:04:55 Maggie Moe
Just like me. No I'm kidding. [They all laugh]

0:05:00 Josh Vranas
But she suffers from chronic migraines. And so, she goes to a doctor and the doctor prescribes her a dragon. Which is a strange prescription. But she starts to take it. And all you have to do is look into its eyes and it's mesmerizing and makes all the pain go away. But like pets and animals do, it continues to grow and take over her life until she tries to escape it.

0:05:23 William Moyers
Then what happens?

0:05:25 Maggie Moe
Well, you'll have to see the show. [Moyers laughs] No, but basically, I guess we can spoil it a little bit here. So she realizes that she wants to slay the dragon, she thinks she can just kill the dragon. But you can't ever, as we know in recovery, you can't just be like 'Oh I'm done, like that's dead to me, I'm done with it, I'm done with addiction, that's not me anymore.'

0:05:43 William Moyers

0:05:47 Maggie Moe
It's always gonna be a part of you, right? You have to one day at a time, every single day, confront it.

0:05:52 William Moyers

0:05:53 Maggie Moe
And so by the end of the show, the dragon gets small again. Because she's realized she hasn't been looking into its eyes, she hasn't been feeding it. And the dragon comes back and says, 'Georgia,' and she says, 'Not today.' [puts hand out]

0:06:03 William Moyers

0:06:04 Maggie Moe
And so, it's about that kinda daily reprieve that we know. And recovery taking it one day at a time, the last song in the show is “One Day at a Time.” [nods]

0:06:14 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. And I want to talk about the fact that it is a musical. That it isn't a book, or at least not yet, it's not a play, it's not a drama—although there's probably drama in it—it's a musical. Why a musical?

0:06:29 Josh Vranas
Well, music brings people together. [Maggie nods]

0:06:31 William Moyers

0:06:32 Josh Vranas
And it is a unifier. In a way that if you can hit somebody emotionally, in a place where they're unafraid, and you can show them the magic of it—which music is also magic—then there can be empathy. [Maggie nods]

0:06:49 William Moyers

0:06:49 Josh Vranas
And we wanted to make sure that the entire time, even if you don't agree with what Georgia is doing, you at least understand it. And you empathize with it. [Maggie nods] Because our main goal is to destigmatize addiction and recovery. And we've really found that the show can be just as much as it is a mirror for those who have gone through Georgia's journey and understand it, it's also a window for a lot of people. 

0:07:14 William Moyers

0:07:14 Josh Vranas
And a window hopefully that shows empathy. And where they can leave hopefully with that stigma, you know, a little lessened or hopefully, completely eradicated.

0:07:29 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. And how does the music fit into the theme of the show? I mean, how does that work?

0:07:40 Maggie Moe
Well basically, I think that what's really cool about having songs is that it takes you to that emotional place that you wouldn't just get from lines. I think there's something about pairing a melody with lyrics that can heighten the state of your experience—

0:07:55 William Moyers

0:07:56 Maggie Moe
—And it sits there and elevates you. You don'—it's something intangible that's just happening—
[Josh nods]

0:08:02 William Moyers

0:08:02 Maggie Moe
—On the stage in front of you. And so I think that when you're experiencing those emotions and you're feeling the love that Georgia feels for the dragon at first, you're feeling the anger she feels when she wants to get rid of it but can't, you're feeling the kind of peace but knowing that she has to work on it and one day at a time. That something intangible, that you can add in the music that you can't just say in words, I think you have to feel. And so that adds to the empathy that the audience will feel, hopefully. For Georgia and her journey. 

0:08:31 William Moyers
Now when you say hopefully—

0:08:35 Maggie Moe

0:08:34 William Moyers
—In terms of the audience reaction, where does the play or the musical stand, right now? Josh?

0:08:41 Josh Vranas
The reactions that we've had over the last year as we've been workshopping it and refining it—

0:08:46 William Moyers

0:08:46 Josh Vranas
—Have been overwhelmingly positive. 

0:08:49 William Moyers

0:08:49 Josh Vranas
—And we're really grateful for that, we're happy that we're doing our part for that. [Maggie nods, smiles] And we had a lot of first responders come to our workshop in Hilton Head last year.

0:08:58 William Moyers
Oh! Huh. 

0:09:02 Josh Vranas
And they were not musical people, they typically would never choose to go out to the theater. But their response was that it hooked them from the very start and that oh what was it? [looks at Maggie]

0:09:15 Maggie Moe
They loved that we never used the word 'addiction' basically—

0:09:17 William Moyers
I was going to ask—yes!

0:09:17 Maggie Moe
—But you simply implicitly knew that that's what it was about. 

0:09:20 William Moyers
Yeah! Yeah, yeah. And so why don't you explicitly use the term addiction?

0:09:28 Maggie Moe
I think 'cause there's such a stigma around it. 

0:09:31 William Moyers

0:09:32 Maggie Moe
And I think there's so much negativity associated with it. A big reason why we wrote the show was because we felt like there weren't stories being told from addicts' perspectives. Especially on stage, especially in musical theater—

0:09:43 William Moyers
Yes. Yeah.

0:09:44 Maggie Moe
—It's so much like, 'Oh there's this addict and they're bad and they ruin their family's lives and oh isn't it tragic?' It's like, yeah, that is, sadly a very common story, but, we wanna give people the opportunity to understand maybe why someone becomes an addict. 

0:10:00 William Moyers

0:10:00 Maggie Moe
And I think in using the magic of a dragon, this metaphor, it kinda softens the blow of the words like 'addiction, addict, heroin, opiates,' all those things that people have such a negative association with.

0:10:06 William Moyers
Ahh. Yeah.

0:10:14 Maggie Moe
And it kind of allows them to experience things through the lens of the magic—magical realism—in our show.

0:10:24 William Moyers
The show is titled My Pet Dragon and so I would imagine if it's a pet dragon, we all have our ideas of what a dragon is—

0:10:32 Maggie Moe

0:10:32 William Moyers
—And a dragon from Harry Potter is a very different kind of dragon perhaps than one that you might see in a horror film. Or in a kids' book! So, is the dragon friendly? Approachable? Loving, in the beginning— 

0:10:53 Maggie Moe

0:10:53 William Moyers
—In the beginning and then becomes a bad dragon. How does that—yes?

0:10:55 Josh Vranas

0:10:56 William Moyers

0:10:56 Josh Vranas
I mean, starting it off with a baby dragon that's adorable and it's cute—

0:10:58 William Moyers
It's a baby dragon! Which is cute, yes.

0:11:00 Josh Vranas
—Exactly and that's gonna reel you in. 

0:11:01 William Moyers
Yes. Yeah.

0:11:03 Josh Vranas
But slowly as monsters do, it continues to grow and it gets more terrifying and you realize the true immense power behind it. And so that was kind of exciting to play with as we were writing it actually was seeing how adorable it can be, how enticing it can be, and then how frightening it can be by the end. 

0:11:22 William Moyers

0:11:23 Josh Vranas
And then bringing it back to that place of still always asking, always, you know, 'I'm hungry, Georgia, I'm so hungry,' and her just, 'Not today.'

0:11:29 William Moyers
Yes. Leaving it in the cave perhaps. 

0:11:36 Maggie Moe
Yeah. [nods]

0:11:36 Josh Vranas

0:11:37 William Moyers
But not slaying it, to your point. Because addiction is a chronic illness, we know, which means there's no cure for it yet. Of course at Hazelden Betty Ford and other treatment programs, you learn how to put it in the cave, but it's still there.

0:11:51 Maggie Moe

0:11:52 William Moyers
And so, your dragon is still there.

0:11:55 Maggie Moe

0:11:56 William Moyers
Wow. And when you have been out on the road, the reaction from the first responders you talked about, what are the stages of bringing something like this to the big stage?

0:12:09 Maggie Moe
Well, so we have an opportunity in March 2024 to open the show in Atlanta, Georgia. 

0:12:15 William Moyers

0:12:16 Maggie Moe
Georgia, the main character—

0:12:17 William Moyers

0:12:19 Maggie Moe
—So that was kinda serendipitous and cool. And that's gonna be our first full-fledged production, so like costumes, sets, orchestrations, like what you'd see if you paid for a ticket and went to a show.

0:12:29 William Moyers

0:12:30 Maggie Moe
And so far we've done readings and workshops and so it's been kind of pared-down versions of that. So we have this awesome opportunity in March and then hopefully from there we wanna tour it and travel and start gaining more notoriety and buzz around the show. And eventually, open in New York. 

0:12:47 William Moyers
Of course, right? 

0:12:47 Maggie Moe
Yeah! The big dream! [beams along with Josh]

0:12:48 William Moyers
And we're talking—and just to put that into context—we're talking about March of 2024, we're sitting down here in the studio in the Twin Cities in May of 2023, so we know that this podcast will have some life. So by the time March of next year comes around, it will be a full running musical onstage in Atlanta, Georgia. And I believe that you partnered with a treatment program down there, is that correct?

0:13:13 Maggie Moe

0:13:14 William Moyers
Yes. And it's not Hazelden Betty Ford of course but that's okay, because, you know, there's enough to go around. How did you make that connection with that treatment program?

0:13:23 Maggie Moe
Well we had done a kind of Recovery Gala where we presented a few songs from the show. At Acceptance Recovery in Athens, Georgia.

0:13:31 William Moyers
Yes. Yes, oh yeah.

0:13:33 Maggie Moe
And that's where we met Olivia—

0:13:34 William Moyers

0:13:35 Maggie Moe
—Who is the person that's taking it to Atlanta.

0:13:37 William Moyers
Good! And is the audience just quote unquote 'people who've been touched by addiction,' or is it truly for the general public? Josh?

0:13:49 Josh Vranas
It's for everybody. And it should be seen by everybody because like I said about it being a mirror, it's a mirror for those who know Georgia's story. But it's also a window for those who maybe are still stuck in the stigma who don't fully understand what it is to have an addiction. And to start your recovery journey. 

0:14:12 William Moyers
Yeah. Wow. What is your expectation, Maggie, as it relates to how this is received? And I don't mean by the critics—

0:14:19 Maggie Moe
Yeah. [laughs] Yeah.

0:14:19 William Moyers
—We hope it's always gonna be a good reception, but by the audience. Because you know, when we stand up and speak out as advocates, and that's what you all are doing, personally and through your creative effort here, you tend to get a lot of replies or requests for help, pleas for help.

0:14:34 Maggie Moe

0:14:34 William Moyers
Have you built that in to how you're gonna deal with the audience reaction?

0:14:39 Maggie Moe
Well we'd certainly like to. I think we'd love to partner with you guys or somebody along the way—

0:14:44 William Moyers

0:14:45 Maggie Moe
—That we can immediately have pamphlets, people there to talk to who can help if you realize, 'Oh my gosh that's me, I need to get into recovery right now.' 

0:14:51 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:14:55 Maggie Moe
We'd love to have people there that would be able to facilitate that. I think that's the dream for the show ultimately.

0:15:01 William Moyers

0:15:02 Maggie Moe
To be able to do that. [nods]

0:15:03 William Moyers
And what about talking to other artists, playwrights, musicians, about this? Is there a way that you network to get the word out? Or how does that work?

0:15:14 Maggie Moe
Well we have Producers, we've worked with 35th Parallel Productions. And so they've done a lot of the marketing thus far.

0:15:21 William Moyers

0:15:22 Maggie Moe
And yeah, I think word of mouth is always huge. Obviously we have our NYU connections.

0:15:28 William Moyers
Yes, which is an important one because it has such a fine reputation.

0:15:32 Josh Vranas

0:15:32 Maggie Moe
Yeah. So we're really lucky to be able to have that for sure.

0:15:35 William Moyers
And of course we'll have this podcast too, that we can use. [smiles]

0:15:37 Josh Vranas
Right, yeah. [smiles, nods]

0:15:36 Maggie Moe
Yeah! Thank you!

0:15:38 William Moyers
I wanna bring it back to—as we get ready to close here with such a couple minutes—to talk more about your personal journeys. Because we know along that journey, more is revealed, right?

0:15:49 Maggie Moe

0:15:49 William Moyers
And now that you've written this play and composed the music for it, have you changed your perspective on addiction and recovery? Or is the play or is the musical still relevant as you wrote it and produced it?

0:16:04 Josh Vranas
Well with my recovery journey being so closely tied to the show, I think it's really opened up my eyes to the broader community of recovery—

0:16:14 William Moyers

0:16:15 Josh Vranas
—'Cause that was something I was not really involved in or knew anything really about.

0:16:18 William Moyers
Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:16:18 Josh Vranas
But through Maggie, my eyes have been opened to the vast and incredible community that is the recovery community. 

0:16:26 William Moyers

0:16:26 Josh Vranas
And I sort of like what we said, if I hadn't gotten sober, I don't think the show would be as impactful on my work on it—

0:16:36 William Moyers

0:16:36 Josh Vranas
—Because I wouldn't fully understand that journey to the same degree. 'Cause I was still going through it.

0:16:43 William Moyers
Yes. Yes.

0:16:43 Maggie Moe
I think if anything, I don't know, I've been I mean knock on wood and we're never out of the woods with this thing—I think I've been really lucky that I've kept my sobriety date from when I went to Betty Ford.

0:16:55 William Moyers

0:16:56 Maggie Moe
And I think one of the biggest things that was important to infuse into Georgia's story is that it's not always that cut-and-dry. 

0:17:02 William Moyers

0:17:03 Maggie Moe
Like you don't—like you can hear it a bunch of times and you can hit what you think is rock bottom and it's not rock bottom. We have a song called "Hitting Rock Bottom." But, it's—so I think that that's been something that has given me more compassion for people that are still struggling and in and out of the rooms. Because I feel like yeah, every story is different, every addiction is different, every dragon looks different—

0:17:29 William Moyers
Mmm. Mmm-hmm.

0:17:29 Maggie Moe
—And in the case of our show, it was important that we show somebody that's in the thick of it for a long time and seemingly loses everything many times.

0:17:39 Josh Vranas

0:17:39 Maggie Moe
So that—to not be glib or trite about it. And so I think that's definitely I guess opened my eyes to the greater community of recovering addicts, for sure.

0:17:50 William Moyers
Thanks for bringing your message of creative hope and help and healing to our audience today. I'm eager for the grand opening on Broadway—

0:17:58 Maggie Moe
Aah! Thank you!

0:17:59 William Moyers
—In a year and a half or so, and then when you all are up there to get that Tony Award nomination— [Maggie laughs, touches Josh's arm]

0:18:04 William Moyers
—And we'll be right there with you. We wanna get the first interview after you accept the Tony, okay?

0:18:08 Maggie Moe
Oh, you got it!

0:18:09 Josh Vranas
Definitely. [laughs]

0:18:10 William Moyers

0:18:11 Maggie Moe
It's yours, bud. Yeah.

0:18:11 William Moyers
Maggie Moeand Josh Vranas, thank you so much for being with us today. My Pet Dragon is the musical. And we'll stay in touch with you all and follow you along to the great success as you do this one day at a time. Thanks for being with us today.

0:18:27 Josh Vranas
Thank you very much.

0:18:27 Maggie Moe
Awww, thank you so much.

0:18:29 William Moyers
[turns to camera] And thanks for all of you for joining us, tuning into this podcast. You can see that it's a very inspiring to watch these Let's Talk podcasts because they always end with an insight into what's possible. Through that process of dealing with your dragons. And that on the other side of the dragon is what we see here today. So we hope you'll tune in again for another edition of Let's Talk, and take good care. 

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