I float into the former Red House Theater arm-in-arm with Jude, partly dissociated…well-practiced self-protection in case the next two hours are too painful.
Jude and I choose seats, front row. Stephen Cross, director, greets me, and graciously introduces me to the audience, having already asked my consent. He and Sarah Proctor-Schieffelin, cofounder of Building Company Theater (and star of this production as Frances…me), had just treated me to dinner, between these 90 minute shows. They are also working full time.
I am Frances Southwick, the author of Prognosis: Poor. In July 2013, I graduated from UPMC Shadyside Family Medicine Residency Program, finally a full-fledged independent doctor. In October 2015, Prognosis: Poor, a short exposé memoir about the training experience, was published. And September 2018, Building Company Theater exhibited its adapted-from-the-book theater work. Which brings us to the opening line.
“Once upon a time,” the play launches into fast, bright comedy, which surprises and relieves me. The entire first half of the production is light, engaging, and sprinkled with foreshadowing. Physicians in the audience unconsciously nod along to House of God references, a résumé building sequence, and several other pre-medical training milestones.
The dark depth comes after intermission. “The system” waves beat the protagonist against breakers and the audience is caught in the tumult. We watch reenactments of some of my most painful memories. Jude is crying. The room is, too. They nailed it. I am raw. I creep away.
After a few moments to myself in a stairwell, I gather myself and walk back to face the cast and audience to find an inspired room of people. I’m greeted with warmth and excitement. A program director wants more residents to see it. Even those not familiar with medical training were roped in, wrung out and satisfied. The universal experience of human suffering has been tapped, leaving the audience’s thirst for connection quenched. I land softly.
My cheeks hurt from smiling, writing this review of Prognosis: Poor. The theater work, adapted from my book, is so many things – funny, colorful, intriguing, multifaceted, and creative yet accessible. They captured it. They used masks and lights and music and five cast members who play countless roles, well. The director and each cast member owns the performance, because they wrote it together. The audience is graced with a new level of awareness. The show has invigorated me to continue to work for positive change. Now my expression drops to pain and disgust. Reality for medical residents has not changed.
The adaptation has retained and elevated the core message of the book: Medical training is a destructive force.
This message and the theater work begs questions. Who are those drawn to medical training? Are they armed with the emotional wherewithal to weather the training? What exactly do we mean by destructive, why do we accept that it is destructive, and what will we each do about it?
The show, like the book, resonates with a wide audience:
- those it could comfort in medical training;
- those it could educate who are considering a career in medicine;
- those it could awaken, who are charged with the safety and training of medical students and residents;
- those to whom it could emotionally connect on a human level, i.e. a general adult audience.
Thank you Building Company, for actually doing it - reading Prognosis: Poor, and acting on your inspiration.