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Cleaning up their acts

Performers from all genres have found themselves — and sobriety — at Right Turn in Arlington

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / January 25, 2011

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At the end, George MacDonald started blacking out onstage. Jim Lauletta missed three shows in one month — something he’d never done in 21 years. John David saw the bottom fall out of his life after 23 years in the business.

All three veteran stand-up comics were demolished by drugs and alcohol. All three are sober now. They experienced first-hand the perils of the business: endless travel, a couple of shows a night, free drinks at the bar, maybe a few lines of cocaine before going on, and hard-core parties after coming off.

“It’s a very enabling business,’’ says Jack Lynch, 27 years sober, who cleaned up before he began touring for more than two decades. But he’d seen it all up close for years and eventually burned out from life on the road.

Lynch still performs selectively but spends much of his time working as a part-time counselor at an addiction recovery program in Arlington called Right Turn. The nonprofit is a safe harbor for an array of creative people — comics, musicians, artists, writers — who have been taken down by drugs and alcohol. It bills itself as “a creative place for recovery’’ and has been since Woody Giessmann founded it in 2003.

Giessmann drummed for the Boston-based rock group the Del Fuegos and toured for years with them and other bands such as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and ZZ Top.

“I buried a lot of people. I didn’t want to be the next Keith Moon,’’ he says, referring to the legendary Who drummer who died of a drug overdose in 1978.

Giessmann got clean and sober in 1990 and has worked in the addiction and mental health fields for almost two decades. Early on, word got out he had started Right Turn, and his musical friends began calling him for help.

“There’s a comfort level that people have here they can’t find anywhere else,’’ says Lynch. “They’re with people who understand what they’ve been through. I know what it’s like to be alone in a hotel room with a pizza.’’

Fellow comics understand when Lauletta says: “What comes after the show? Who’s making me happy? No one.’’

It is no mystery why comics thrive on sobriety. “You sober up and you do things better,’’ Lynch says. “If you’re a bank robber, you’re a better bank robber. And you’re wise to the big lie that I can’t be creative sober. It’s the addiction game.’’

Peter Johnson, a former musician who also counsels at Right Turn, puts it this way: “Recovering artists helped me to dispel the myth that my creativity needed to be fed and nurtured by alcohol. This was a revelation to me.’’

Among performers who get help from Right Turn, says clinical director Gabrielle Dean, comics are a particularly tight-knit group.

“They look out for each other,’’ she notes. “I think of all the professions, being all by yourself in front of an audience, without a band, is really scary.’’ Many of them have attended, or are attending, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but, she adds, “It is here they find the artistic part of their recovery. Creativity is a huge component. A lot of people have had their creative sides shut down by addiction.’’

Sober comics play the clubs where they used to perform drunk and stoned: Saugus staples such as Giggles Comedy Club at Prince Pizzeria and Kowloon Comedy at Kowloon restaurant, and Dick Doherty’s comedy clubs, among others.

Longtime funny man Joey Carroll, 23 years sober, estimates he does close to 20 shows a month, often outside of New England, occasionally on cruise ships. He was doing stand-up in Fallujah after the Marines had retaken the Iraqi city in brutal street fighting. He recalls one Marine telling him how scary he thought the comedian’s job was. Carroll just stared at him.

Right Turn is not a 12-step program. It does rent space to AA and NA for meetings there during the week, as it does to Smart Recovery, an addiction recovery program that rejects the 12-step template. But Right Turn itself is agnostic when it comes to programs. Whatever works. It has none of the walls that separate AA from NA, for example.

The program, according to Dean, has nine addiction counselors, plus social workers, mental health experts, a primary care-internist, and a psychiatrist — all part-time. Giessmann and Dean appear together every Sunday evening for an hour of Right Turn Radio on WTKK, where they discuss addiction, conduct interviews, and take calls from listeners. Giessmann was named professional of the year for 2010 by the National Association for Addiction Professionals.

The essence of Right Turn is what happens there every Thursday night at a meeting called “Artists in Recovery.’’ Any one can show up. They can say anything. There is no preamble, no Serenity Prayer. Around 50 people showed up a couple of weeks ago. Someone speaks, after which the people in the audience raise their hands to speak.

A musician might express how much more comfortable he is speaking there about a heroin addiction than at AA meetings, even though AA now accepts drugs as part of a person’s story. Right Turn also provides an array of other meetings to address the creativity among those in recovery. Carroll, for example, runs a writing workshop every Monday night where participants write short pieces and then talk about them together.

“They’re mostly comics,’’ says John David, who attends. “You get a group of comics together and it’s just insanity. We bounce ideas off each other.’’ There are also music and art groups, a meditation session, and a meeting of Adult Children of Alcoholics, among others.

Saturday nights bring live performances by musicians, comics, and other artists in recovery, things you don’t see at your average addiction program. There are blues nights, when musicians play together, comics nights, clean and sober karaoke nights, open mike nights.

Lauletta, sober for a year and eight months, and David, who is seven months sober, both get regular counseling at Right Turn. George MacDonald, sober 25 years, has spoken there a number of times. David says he’s now booked on weekends all the way to July: “I never had bookings like that when I was drinking.’’

His first sober show, a week after he went off alcohol and drugs, was nerve-wracking.

“I wasn’t terrified,’’ he recalls, “but I was very anxious. Am I going to be able to do this? Can I pull this off? I had kind of a swashbuckling act. Beer onstage like a prop. Now I go on stage with a bottle of water. It’s amazing.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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