The Art-Science Crossover or Lessons Learned by a Doctor/Playwright
Being a doctor/playwright is a bit like being a firewalker; everyone thinks you’re crazy, and they’re probably right. Some of my medical colleagues are not exactly theatre devotees. When I tell them about my passion for live performance, I get puzzled frowns. I’d probably get the same reaction if I was talking about Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster.
I’ve managed to mystify not only my fellow doctors, but my theatre friends as well. Over the years, I’ve sent plays to traditional theatres. Most times, the response went like this:
Me: Here is a play about palliative care.
Theatre: What’s that?
Me: Palliative care is holistic medical care for seriously ill patients.
Theatre: Uh-huh. Is this actually a play?
Finally, I realized I was writing for a specific audience: doctors and nurses. This audience rarely visited the theatre (at least, my friends didn’t.) If I wanted to write for them, I’d have to try something different. So what did I do? The usual: Ask for help.
This brings me to my first lesson: Cherish your supporters. I’ll start with Brent Englar, a playwright/director. Brent and I have been friends for a long time, and I keep sending him plays. When I finished Life Support, I told Brent I’d written a play for doctors.
“There’s only one problem,” I said. “If we want doctors to see it, we’ll have to perform it at the hospital. Except no one does plays at the hospital so…yeah. Why don’t you produce it?”
“Why don’t I read the script first?” Brent said. A few days later, he called me. “This is good,” he said. “I’ll direct.” Since then, Brent has dealt with problems similar to the Apollo 13 debacle. No lights, no sound. Long, narrow hospital auditoriums designed for PowerPoints, not plays. No rehearsal space. Despite this, Brent remains sanguine. “Don’t worry,” he says. “We’ll figure it out.”
My other angel investor is my boss. He is an accomplished physician and a patron of the arts. When I tell him my crazy ideas, he says, “Great.” I told him I wanted to perform a play for doctors—people who don’t go to the theatre—and this kind of thing has never been done before. Of course, my boss’s response was, “Great!”
With the help of Brent, my boss, and many others, I was able to secure a cast, crew, and venue. We received funding from a foundation that promotes humanism in medicine. After lots of dillydallying, we picked our performance dates: Life Support opens in April 2016.
In January, we started rehearsals. Brent did some creative directing since our stage is only nine feet wide. (Actors have to squeeze past each other and pretend it’s natural. Don’t exhale.) I figured we were home free. All we needed was a set.
This brings me to my second lesson, which is a little counterintuitive: Ask for the impossible. Life Support takes place in a hospital. Brian Kraszewski is our wonderful stage manager; he volunteered to be our set designer as well. I said, “Okay, we need a hospital room with a bed, a tray table, and an IV pole. The entire set needs to fold up and fit in a very small car. It has to be simple and lightweight so we can put it together in just a few minutes. And it should look realistic. Oh—and please don’t spend any money.”
After hashing this out with the director, I went on my merry way. And guess what? Brian built a set. Look, here is the hospital room, the bed, the IV pole, and the tray table. Here is this entire world, wholly real and made out of pixie dust. I am not sure how this happened. I can only assume devious incantations were involved. Either that, or Santa Claus and Baba Yaga showed up to help. What do you do with magic? I don’t know. I guess you smile and nod—and move on. After all, it’s theatre.
Art-science crossover projects live in the shaded area of the Venn diagram. They leak into odd crevices; they exist in liminal space; they belong to everything and nothing, all at the same time.
Merriam Webster defines crossover as: “an instance of breaking into another category.” When I say crossover, I mean a project informed by two different fields. Another word for this is transdomain practice, which refers to broad, interdisciplinary work that involves several scientific (or artistic) fields. (For more on this, see Liz Lerman’s Hiking the Horizontal.)
Art-science crossover projects live in the shaded area of the Venn diagram. They leak into odd crevices; they exist in liminal space; they belong to everything and nothing, all at the same time. Naturally, this leads to all sorts of problems. So the next question is: Why? Why are you doing this?
My final lesson is: Understand the “why.” Why did we create Life Support? When asked, I came up with several possible responses:
- Brent thought it was good.
- My mom likes it.
- I have a strange desire to make actors memorize hundreds of lines.
Nothing of these answers was entirely satisfactory. So I had to dig deeper; I had to piece together my fragmented thoughts. Thinking about “why,” I came up with three main reasons to combine theatre and medicine:
- Theatre can educate.
- Theatre can engage.
- Theatre is like Mt. Everest.
Let’s start with #1: Theatre can educate. At its core, Life Support is about doctor-patient communication. I wanted to show more than a “bad” doctor or a “good” patient; I wanted to show the messy, nitty-gritty evolution of human interaction. And for that, theatre is unparalleled. Live theatre gives us the um’s and ah’s, the body mechanics, the voice changes—all the intricacies of verbal and nonverbal communication—in real time and space. A realistic play is highly…realistic. It’s our most accurate representation of life.
No other medium comes close. Photos give us a single image; words on a page are just words on a page; and film (while powerful) doesn’t give us the sensations: the smells, the milieu, and the mise en scène. Plus, film is a translation. Film requires an army of editors and sound engineers. We hear filtered sound, and we see filtered sights. We also see close-ups, wide shots, and medium shots. Someone packaged this up for us. It’s very nice. But it’s not theatre. It’s not alive.
When I talk about “education,” I want to be clear. I don’t mean education in the conventional sense: Here you go, 108 PowerPoint slides. Or how about some handouts with teeny-tiny print? I mean the education of Socrates and Shakespeare, the knowledge that prompts self-reflection.
With Life Support, I wanted to show how hard it is to talk about dying—how hard it is to let go. I wanted to throw this up on the stage and let people draw their own conclusions. Think for yourself, please. Agitprop only goes so far. People need to create their own revelations.
Isn’t this why we’re artists? Because theatre changes us; theatre gives us something impermeable, a fixation, a dream.
And this brings me to #2: Theatre can engage. I forget things as fast as I learn them. I’ve forgotten more scientific formulas than scholars knew in the Middle Ages. (Fortunately, I have this nice tool called a computer so I can look them up again.) But I’ll tell you what I don’t forget: A pale, middle-aged woman named Blanche, sitting under a paper lantern.
Equus. The Crucible. The Whale. Red Light Winter. You get the point. Isn’t this why we’re artists? Because theatre changes us; theatre gives us something impermeable, a fixation, a dream.
And finally, #3: Theatre is like Mt. Everest. In 1924, a reporter asked George Mallory: “Why climb Mt. Everest?” He said, “Because it’s there.” Remember theatre is anything: a street corner, a classroom, a parking lot. Remember we are more than artists; we are visionaries, entrepreneurs, and publicists. Remember we can do anything, really. Look at the bards, skalds, and roving minstrels; who needs lights and a sound booth? As Brent said, we’ll figure it out. Why? Well—why not? Why? Because we can. Because we all have a fierce love for impossible things.
Final Thoughts—A Postscript
A few years ago, I went to the Winterlude Festival in Ottawa. For the Festival, artists fill a park with dozens of ice sculptures. People don their snow boots and snow hats and troop out in freezing weather. They drink coffee and hot chocolate and eat flat, sticky pastries called Beavertails.
So one January afternoon, I trudged into the park, past the concession stands, past the swarms of screeching children. It was bone-chilling cold. Snowflakes were falling. I remember looking at a sculpture. Carved from a single block of ice, it was eight or nine feet tall. It was a woman, long, lean, and elegant. She stood poised with gravely folded hands; her expression was stern; and she had the eight legs of a spider.
The sculpture was called Destiny. I stood shivering. I stood there, wet and numb, and I wondered why anyone would make something so beautiful and so pointless. Ice melts. Seasons change. And isn’t that just like theatre? I don’t think this is pointless—do you?
To my fellow artists—with gratitude.