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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.

a man and a woman in a conversation
Brian Kraszewski and Madeline Leong at rehearsal. Photo by Daniel Stuelpnagel.

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.


two people in rehearsal
Playwright and director at Work (Madeline Leong and Brent Englar). Photo by Christopher Myers.

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:

  1. Brent thought it was good.
  2. My mom likes it.
  3. 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:

  1. Theatre can educate.
  2. Theatre can engage.
  3. 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.

three actors on stage
Elizabeth Ung, Madeline Leong, and Rodney Bonds in rehearsal. Photo by Christopher Myers.

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.

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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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Well done and well written! Now, can both writer and readers put this forward to management/administration/educators-and-their-admins as a great example of why we/they/all of us should be talking about *STEAM* rather than *STEM* as an operative educational strategy (and receiver of big money and PR?!) Thanks for sharing your journey.

Never underestimate the power of the arts to illuminate an idea. Back in the 90s, the Idaho Commission on the Arts and Idaho Rural Development Council commissioned and toured a play using the words of students struggling with drugs, suicide and sexual issues under the auspices of the Idaho Hospital Association. Families were urged to attend together. Local caregivers and resource providers also attended. Act I was the play called Opening Windows. Act II was a facilitated conversation about how the local community could create a healthier community for kids, together. The script was made available in the local hs library in advance to quell fears about the play's content and intent.
Auditoriums were packed, minds were opened. There was incremental progress. Score one for art. . .terrific article and project. Keep it up Madeline!

Thank you all for your kind words!

J. Clinton, I agree completely ... Once people actually see theatre, they "suddenly realize what they’ve been missing by never going to the theatre."

Hello Dr. Leong,
I commend you on insisting to create stories for unconventional lications about things you love. I am a Family Nurse Practitioner and am also a theatre afficionado. I produce plays for a womens theatre compnay and a Spanish language theatre company. Listen to what your heart says: these stories need to be told. Congratulations to you. Loved reading your piece.
Haydee Canovas, APRN

I believe your crossover is really and truly the theatre of the future. As theatre competes with so many other entertainment mediums, which are available in most people’s pockets, how will theatre sustain its’ audiences? This is the reason immersive theatre has become popular – it is novel and engages people in a new and different way, in very specific places. You must do this in order to get people’s attention – especially the attention of non-theatre goers. The author says doctors don’t go to the theatre. It used to be that doctors, lawyers and professionals of all kinds were major theatre goers. Apparently, this is no longer true. Now if people don’t go to the theatre then theatre must go to the people, and we must create theatre that is very specific for very specific audiences as demonstrated by Life Support. This is where playwrights can put their thinking caps on and look at their everyday lives to see where they can utilize their craft to bring stories told utilizing theatre techniques to audiences that need to hear those stories. For example, stories about local historical events told at the historical society – imagine the possibilities. Historical re-enactments are already very popular – scale these down, and focus in on key pivotal moments prior to, or after the event, to dramatically tell the story of whatever the reenactment is about – the impact on specific lives – scenes that show the passion leading up to the event or the grief and sorrow in the aftermath. There are a million ways to crossover here. Think about the clubs and organizations you belong to – portray the founder’s struggles to get it off the ground. Think of how a company was started and grown, for example the recent Chobani story of the immigrant coming to America, starting with a handful of people to create a product that became so popular that he has turned around to share profits with his employees. Wouldn’t that company love to see their story dramatized on a stage in the company auditorium; key players in the company down to the newest worker getting a picture of what went on, how it happened, the blood seat and tears that eventually turned to tears of joy and gratitude when it was announced profits will be shared? If playwrights can scale down their expectations and consider audiences that are not endless, but will expand each year for annual presentations that would be meaningful to those specific audiences, then the possibilities are endless. Playwrights can lead the way to creating theatre as a means to share and educate without becoming Broadway sensations, while at the same time fulfilling a need to educate in an engaging way that has proven to be transformative for both audiences and performers. Not only would this serve a greater purpose, it would also serve to quell some of the tremendous playwright “angst” that seethes out there when playwrights fail to become the darlings of major theatres that can produce their plays on a regular basis. This crossover approach would serve to provide playwrights with real life theatre experience that can not only satisfy, but also provide growth through productions that they are actively engaged and involved in. I have experienced it myself, and I am much better off and much happier as a playwright as a result. Bravo to Madeline Leong, and her supporters, for crossing-over and sharing, and leading the way. She has written a play and brought theatre to the people, and she can bring it again and again, because the audience is constantly changing, she has found an audience. By making it easy to see theatre, people are often overjoyed by the experience. They suddenly realize what they’ve been missing by never going to the theatre. Theatre seen in the context of what they are actually experiencing i.e. in the hospital, can be so much more meaningful than theatre that is presented in a place that depends on drawing an audience to keep its doors open.