Striking Change With a Pen
Words by Molly Spillman | Photo by Nate Manley
Emelia Sherin takes a deep breath while standing in the wings of the Akron Civic Theatre. It’s early August and she is preparing to head on stage, no longer as a performer for a high school production or as a lead dancer for Disney Cruise Line, but to introduce her own play — one she wrote during her freshman year of college.
Sherin, a 20-year-old majoring in public relations, thinks differently about the world and the way the media talk about pressing issues. While navigating how to weave journalism and reporting in with her way of thinking about these topics, she stumbled upon using her love of theater to express herself. Of the many issues plaguing today’s society, she chose the opioid epidemic to personify in her first play, “(In)Dependent: The Heroin Project.”
“This is my form of PR,” Sherin says. “I like to call it journalistic theater or theatrical journalism. This is my form of advocacy and awareness.”
Sherin grew up in Howland Township, located near Warren and Youngstown — two cities on the front lines of the epidemic. After graduating high school in 2015, she took a gap year to work as a lead dancer for Disney Cruise Line, a job she acquired after only attending a few auditions in New York City.
Upon arriving back at Kent in Fall 2016, Sherin knew the heroin epidemic was spreading across Trumbull County and affecting more people in her hometown with every passing week.
“I was beyond pissed off,” she says.
When she wasn’t balancing her 17 credit hours or her three jobs, Sherin was researching the heroin epidemic. Notepads collected sentences explaining the neuroscience behind addiction, sticky notes wore drawings of the chemical breakdown of the drug and documents compiled research on everything from drug cartels to legislation. Her research was time-consuming, but it was all toward the goal of completely understanding all aspects of the epidemic.
“I suck at chemistry, but I taught myself because I wanted to know it,” she says. “I learned so much — anything about heroin, you could ask me and I would know it.”
Sherin’s mantra is educating others and helping people navigate uncomfortable subjects. This play gave her the opportunity to see how heroin affected communities personally, as well as letting audiences get a more intimate view of the epidemic through her personification of the drug. To Sherin, this play is everything — an educational, recovery, support and advocacy tool wrapped up into one artistic medium. It wasn’t until a senior editor from The New York Times picked up this story that Sherin knew she was about to help communities beyond Northeast Ohio.
“After the article, the show blew up,” she says.
Sherin is now a recognized playwright, and organizations all over the state and country are asking to produce and perform her production. What she prides herself on with this play is the fact it is unique and no other writer has touched on this issue quite like she has.
“This is really special to the art community as well as the U.S.,” she says. “It was necessary.”
Since the production’s debut in August, Sherin’s life has only accelerated with talks of where the play will go next. As for her next theatrical piece, she plans to focus on mental illness with hopes of increasing mental health awareness.
“They don’t see it as things being on our brain telling us what to do or how to feel,” she says. “That’s exactly what it is, but people don’t understand that.”
On opening night of her play, Sherin takes a bow and heads to the back of the theater. She stands there for the entire duration of the production, offering a shoulder to cry on or a hand to hold for her audience watching the true stories play out. She watches as two men from Oriana House, an Akron-based addiction recovery center, laugh and joke throughout the play as they remember how true and real these stories are. Sherin’s reasons for writing this production are found as she looks out and sees recovering addicts, families, community members and survivors alike join together to watch her work come to life.
Molly Spillman is a senior editor, contact her at email@example.com.
Look for the Fall 2017 issue of The Burr Magazine, on stands Tuesday, Nov. 28.