Last year, playwright Deborah Salem Smith delved into the
world of medicine in her play Love Alone,
staged by Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company.
Professor of Emergency Medicine Jay Baruch (see Brown Medicine, Winter 2012), who
co-directs the scholarly concentration in medical humanities and bioethics, brought
nearly 200 medical students to see the play. The moving drama, which examines
the impact of a death caused by medical error on a patient’s family and the
doctor, sparked lively conversations that Baruch wanted to sustain.
So he asked Smith to design a course. The result was last
semester’s “(Play)writing and Medicine.” The class was made possible by a gift
to support the medical humanities from George Bray, MD ’53. Smith was the first
Bray Visiting Scholar; this semester’s scholar, Liz Tobin Tyler, JD, MA,
presented a series of lectures on health care and justice.
Smith, the playwright-in-residence at Trinity Rep, teaches
acting and directing students in the Brown/Trinity MFA Program. But this
innovative class brought together seven Alpert medical students and ten MFA
actors. “Theater is a surprisingly natural fit for these two communities because
theater is about humanity—you get to see real people performing in live time
and the realness of them is in your face,” she says.
The students read works with medical themes and analyzed how
context changes the meaning of a story. For example, how does the language in a
medical examiner’s report differ from the way a widow might talk about her
husband’s death? The students had weekly writing assignments; some wrote
nonfiction, while others worked on scenes from plays or spoken works.
Minoo Ramanathan ’11 MD’16 says students often found ways
their professions overlapped when they discussed their writing.
“A lot of medicine is a performance, where you’re taking on
a professional persona. And with actors, it’s all about being in tune with your
emotions and feelings,” she says. “It’s those moments when you realize maybe
our career paths aren’t so divergent.”
Because the classes were held downtown at the theater,
Ramanathan says she welcomed the break from her eat-breathe-sleep medicine
life. A turning point in the semester, however, came when the medical students
hosted the actors in the anatomy lab. There, on their own turf, the med
students were the experts.
That meeting strengthened the mutual respect between the
groups, Smith says. “It helped deepen, for the actors, the understanding of how
courageous and complex the study of medicine is.”
The success of the course was due in large part to Smith’s
ability to move comfortably between the groups, Ramanathan says. “We united
around the writing process. No matter what background you come from, there are
rules that make your writing better.”
At the end of the semester, Ramanathan and actor Matt
Russell co-produced “Operating Theater,” a public reading of selected pieces
written by students in the course. To watch the performance, visit