• Hannah Walker

Sober Times in a Social Industry

I was twenty days into sobriety when I was asked to bartend for a theater event.

The idea to have staff bartenders at the first opening night party of the season was a fiendishly brilliant one, concocted by our theater’s tireless and wicked Development department: what better way for donors and artists, who comprised the bulk of our opening night invitation-only audience, to get to know the administrative staff? Put those staff members front and center, putting a face and a proffered glass of free chardonnay to the name they’ve been seeing on emails.

I would be parked right behind a cute little sign on the bar with my name (Hannah Walker), my title (Institutional Marketing Manager), and a cute little invitation to engage about one area of my responsibilities (Ask me how you can turn a group sale into a fundraiser for your organization!) Since I had been particularly crunched to try and meet the ever-elusive group sales goal, and since I am helplessly comfortable with the public (Leo sun and moon, what’s up), it felt like a win-win. For the machinations of Devo, as well as for my own marketing goals. Opening night parties are fun, especially for the first show of the season, and I would get to have a place in the center of it. Upsides and a good time all around.

Apart from the whole twenty days sober bit.

I absolutely had the option to say no. Probably. Though it would go against every instinct to say “no” to anything when working at a non-profit professional theater company, where “sorry, that’s not in my job description” is just a laughable idea. But had I explained the situation, I’m sure the Development powers that be would have understood. And the concept of pouring glass after glass of wine, popping the tops off beer bottles freshly dug out of an ice bath, watching my hands do all of this while worrying constantly that one of them would betray me and bring one of those glasses or bottles up to my own lips, was honestly terrifying.

The small, cowardly part of why I didn’t just beg off was that I was then, really ashamed. I’ve been told since that being sober is brave, is admirable, is impressive and inspiring. I have an easier time hearing that now, and feeling it for myself. But that early on, all I felt was the shame. I had told very few people that I was doing a “Dry Fall,” taking a three-month break from all booze, and I had told even fewer people the real why behind it. I felt that it was somehow embarrassing, to be the only 29-year-old I knew who couldn’t “handle” the drinking lifestyle, like it was an extracurricular sport that my type-A overachieving ass was inexplicably terrible at.

But the bigger reason I just smiled and said “awesome, sure, yes, will do,” was that I wanted to see if I could.

One thing I loved about my work in the theater right from the start was the social element. My previous careers had been in journalism and government communications: not industries that lent themselves to regularly scheduled galas, parties, and wine and cheese. Which, when I first started, was a completely innocuous shorthand for this being a really social industry. We like to get together. We work collaboratively, and we play collaboratively too. It was a delight to realize I was technically still on the clock when I was seeing shows, working events I was passionate about and yes, putting away glasses of champagne.

My greatest fear in getting sober was that I wouldn’t be able to do it. Hot on its heels was the fear that I would be able to do it, and that that victory would exclude me from 21st century socializing culture. And, by the nature of my job, the culture of my workplace and industry as well.

How would I be able to connect with coworkers if we weren’t all packed into someone’s cubicle at the end of a gala, shoulder-to-drunken-shoulder and howling with laughter? How would I be able to bond with members of other departments, whose work might never intersect with my own but who also appreciated taking over the opening night dance floor after midnight? How would work friendships change when I couldn’t partake in an after work happy hour that stretched on into a four, five hour bar crawl across town? How would I get comfortable enough to talk to actors and playwrights whose work I admired, without the liquid courage of a couple of glasses?

Navigating this new alcohol-free world, I was hungry for the answers to these questions. Even if seeking these answers involved perhaps putting myself a little recklessly in situations that could bring the whole sobriety house of cards tumbling down.

This opening night bartending was my first work event after recognizing that I needed to change my relationship to alcohol. It was the first big chance to see what I could handle. And, if I could handle it, what the costs might be.

The night itself, bartending and all, ended up being one of my favorite working events of my entire career. So much for making small talk with donors the people came out of that show thirsty and my hands couldn’t possibly betray me by sneaking a sip when I kept misplacing the corkscrew and trying not to slosh too much cabernet across the bar top when pouring three glasses at a time. It was such a whirlwind of opening new bottles, keeping track of requests, and chatting with friends and actors I knew in the audience, that I was effectively distracted from the what if, what if, what if that had been running through me on repeat for the entire day.

When I was relieved from bartending duties after about an hour, after the opening night speeches had been made and the first rush for a post-show bottle of beer had thinned out, I jumped into the event. I had friends to talk to, connections to network with, community members to hug (remember hugs??) and fun to have. And I did it with my beloved can of ginger ale in hand, even going out for more post-party drinks with more friends and staff once the official party wound down.

And it felt weird. It felt so weird. Ordering soda instead of a gin and tonic felt weird. Getting loud and wacky on the strength of nothing other than riding everyone else’s tipsy vibe felt weird. Doing something I had done so many times before, but with that one central variable taken out, felt so weird.

And beautiful. That weirdness was a gift, one that in my shame and guilt, I didn’t think I was worthy of. But every second of it was tangible proof that I could have fun, I could participate in this social field, I could continue to connect in the ways I had before. While one part of my life had radically changed, it wasn’t changed in every area. There’s really no way to put words to how much I needed that, twenty days into sober living, to know that I hadn’t entirely torn up my own life in order to save it.

I still have had nights when I bounced out of events early, and there’s fun that I know I’ve missed out on, stories I had to be told the next day, rather than gleefully sharing in them myself. I can’t know how I may have bonded differently with coworkers and artists by not partying in the way I used to. But what I might have lost is really hypothetical, and more than balanced out by what I no longer have to worry about. I’ve realized that partying with coworkers, regardless of industry, can blur some lines that get real uncomfortable when you work as closely as we do. And I’ve learned that I don’t need liquid courage to chat with artists whom I admire, or network, or help to grow my theater and my industry. I work in marketing. I’ve got that chatty gene, no external assistance required!

Some people have been weird about it, or said crappy things. But I receive that kind of thing with an “ah, good to know,” since someone who takes my drinking as a personal thing about them, or thinks I have some kind of untrustworthy agenda in not drinking, is not someone I need to be spending time with anyway. More often I’m met with honest mistakes in the vein of people who ask if I’m “still doing the not-drinking thing,” or who tend to keep forgetting that it’s a “thing” I’m doing in the first place. That doesn’t bother me so much, since I think it should be normalized to take a short break from drinking, and I recognize that being a drinker, in a drinking industry and a drinking culture, is still taken as the norm.

I can’t say that I’m any kind of sobriety sage, or that I’ve got all this figured out. And I’m lucky in that while my own relationship with alcohol was unsustainable, I’m still able to be around other people drinking, and in the presence of booze. That’s not the case for everyone’s recovery. But so far my two great fears in sobriety have been faced and conquered: I can do it. I’ve been sober a year as of last week. And I haven’t been booted out of society, or the industry, just because the glass I’m holding at the conference’s open bar is all tonic and no gin. I’m still there. I’m still participating. I’m still getting all the benefits of the field I love -- the collaboration, the openness, the community -- with none of the personal dangers.

In the early first month or so of COVID, when the entire theater’s staff was housebound and without any theatermaking to do, we all hopped onto a staff Zoom happy hour. Part boredom, part loneliness, and part our phantom-limb feeling at not being packed together in our little administrative office maze. As teammates and other staff showed off their home bar and margarita setup or discussed the merits of adding ice cubes to their glasses of rose, I waved my frosty can of Heineken Zero at my crappy webcam in solidarity.

I think we all shared the feeling of things being radically different, but ultimately maybe unchanged in some fundamental essentials. I think that’s a feeling that everyone in our industry, in our country, and in our world has shared. It’s a scary feeling, a challenging feeling, but with an element of reassurance alongside a whole universe of new questions.

Fortunately, that’s a feeling I’ve had advance practice with.

Hannah Walker lives in coastal New Jersey, with two dogs and an increasing addiction to the Hallmark Channel. In this theater-less time she has continued her work for Two River Theater creating digital content and having regular breakdowns over video captioning software. You can follow along with her baking misadventures and too many zodiac memes on Instagram at @hannahtorwalk

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