18 October 2017

Doctors’ reality stranger than fiction


A Sydney playwright says he has found accounts by doctors and nurses of working in Australia’s public health system more compelling than anything he could make up – especially the humour.

Paul Dwyer, the co-creator of the taboo-busting production, Grace Under Pressure, has woven together a 90-minute script from 50 hours of interviews with 30 health professionals and students, ranging in status from humble junior doctor to senior consultant.

“These are poignant stories that help us make sense of the issues that the general public doesn’t see when we go to hospital sick and stressed, and these beautiful people fix us up,” he said.

“What struck us, time and again, in these stories was their dignity, strength and humour – the show is essentially also about their joy in being able to provide care and what keeps them going.

“I’ve been laughing and crying in equal measure.”

In rehearsals, when the actors are searching for what they call the “given circumstances” to give context to their characters, it has been helpful to turn to Dr Renee Lim.

The busy accomplished actor, seen recently in the ABC hospital TV drama, Pulse, Dr Lim is one of four actors on stage at Sydney’s Seymour Centre for the debut production, to open on October 25.  On her days off, Dr Lim works in emergency at a Sydney hospital.

Another is Wendy Strehlow, a TV and theatre actor best known for her long-running role in TV soap opera A Country Practice.

Dwyer said the production came out of a conversation among a group of doctors, medical researchers and arts practitioners at Sydney University, sparked by shocking revelations in 2014 about sexual harassment of junior female doctors.

The group, members of the Sydney Arts Collective, were also motivated by concern about the culture of “teaching by humiliation” in medical schools and hospitals.

Dwyer, and co-writer David Williams, came up with the idea of a “verbatim theatre” production which he likens to composing a piece of chamber music.

“Every word that is spoken in the show comes verbatim from our interviewees,” he said.

“These are the voices of medical students, interns, doctors, nurses, paramedics, very senior consultants and hospital administrators. It’s a like vernacular opera, using the power of real stories,” Dwyer told The Medical Republic.  

“People say things in everyday life that are far more brilliant and poetic and insightful than a playwright could ever come up with.”

Often we’d start by asking why were they attracted to a career in medicine or nursing, what were their early experiences like.

Then we’d say, tell us about the tough times, when you were at your limit, and tell us about what keeps you engaged and makes you feel proud.

Dwyer says the verbatim-theatre tradition has its roots in the 1950s, but has had a recent resurgence.

“I think it coincides with the anxiety in society about political spin and living in an age of post-truth. Remarkable theatre makers are having a lot of success engaging audiences in documentary-style and verbatim theatre that gives people a chance to really listen.”