When I was seven years old, I fell in love. I was the youngest member in the cast of an all school production of Trickster, an original play based on various fairy tales. My big scene was a huge dance number, and I was the very last person in the conga line. One day before rehearsal we were all taken over to a hole in the stage and told to pay attention so we don’t fall in. Two hours later I had done just that and was lying on a mattress at the bottom of the hole, staring at the faces of my cast mates peering down at me.
Instead of running far away, I was hooked. I never wanted to miss another opportunity to perform. Over the next 18 years I was involved in almost 30 different productions, either on stage or behind the scenes. I was happiest when I was performing and theater quickly became my passion. As I grew up, however, I found other loves as well. I was deeply intrigued by the brain and the simple beauty of the sciences in college. This, combined with my passion of working with and helping others, led me to apply to medical school. Theater, however, has given me more than just fun memories from my childhood. Its life lessons are ones that I have held onto and have directly impacted my path towards medicine. In fact, I believe that everyone, especially future physicians, should participate in theater not only because it can be a rewarding extracurricular, but also because it can give you specific skills to use in practice.
If you’ve never done a theater production before, then you probably have no idea what ‘tech week’ is. Typically it is the last week before opening night when you go through the entire show and put together all of the technical aspects with the acting. Rehearsals during tech week last many hours and I have been to some that went well into the early morning. When I was twelve, I had a tech week that overlapped with my final exams; while it was not a great experience, it gave me a profound appreciation for time management. When I was busy with a show, every second of every day counted and I never wasted a single one. Now that I am in medical school, I am faced with the similar time constraints to complete my work each day. Those nights at tech rehearsals, however, have made this experience just a little less stressful.
Working with Others
Here is a short list of the different people who come together to put on a show: producers, directors, stage managers, backstage hands, lighting designers, set designers, set constructors, sound designers, makeup artists, costume designers, props managers, publicity coordinators, musicians, musical directors, and choreographers. Oh, right, and actors. Though many extracurricular activities emphasize teamwork, theater is unique in that the team is made up of a very diverse group of people, each with very different and distinct roles. We have all heard how working as a physician requires interacting with a very diverse group of people as well, from technicians, to nurses, to PAs, to fellow doctors of different specialties. Theater has shown me the power of working within a team and learning from every person in that team, no matter what their role might be.
This one is pretty self-explanatory on the theater side, but on the medical side it actually wasn’t until halfway through my first year when I realized how much easier it was for me to do oral presentations than a lot of my classmates. For me, oral presentations seemed intuitive: you take the information that a patient gives you, synthesize it into a script and then recite it to your attending. However, for some of my classmates this was a difficult hurdle to master in our first year. Whether it was because of stage fright, difficulty with memorizing the patient’s story, or unfamiliarity with the process due to lack of practice, many of my classmates lamented that they just weren’t that confident with oral presentations. I am honestly not sure why I have always felt confident about presentations, but I do truly believe that my hours spent in front of people performing has directly improved my ability to recite patient histories in almost any situation possible.
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to act. However, it wasn’t until I was in middle school that I finally was cast in my first community theater production, after years of auditioning. Every week my mom would check the newspaper for local auditions and I would audition week after week. It was hard being constantly rejected for shows, but I refused to stop. I knew that I was happiest on stage and I couldn’t give up on that feeling. Just like the many actors who often face rejection after rejection before landing a part, physicians must travel down a road paved with failure and rejection before finding success. Since beginning medical school, there have been countless nights in the library where I felt defeated. I had an exam in the morning, I still had many lectures to review, and I had just taken a practice test and bombed it. In all of these situations there were thoughts of quitting and giving up. It would be so much easier for me to do something else with my life, I would think, chugging my fifth cup of tea. Still, I always remembered that though this time was rough, the end goal would be worth it. I would push through by reminding myself of the patients I will be able to help with this knowledge, and the memories of success in theater after a long period of failure.
Unlike movies, theater productions are live. If someone drops a line, if a prop falls apart or a cue is missed, there is no ability to cut, reset the scene and start from the top. Every actor needs to be able to think in the moment and react to whatever happens on stage, even if it isn’t what is planned. Similarly, the nature of practicing medicine is fighting against the ever-moving target of disease. To find a real life example, look no further than the surgical theater. Surgeons must know their anatomy backwards and forwards before cutting into a patient, but even with the guidance of images, there can be surprises once someone is on the operating table. These doctors need to think quickly and improvise even in the most routine cases.
Though some believe that the arts and the sciences do not overlap, in my opinion there is more art than science to practicing medicine. In particular, the field of medicine requires many of the same skills necessary to succeed in the theater. Actors can physicians can learn from each other in many ways. So if you are trying to find an extra curricular that might help you as a doctor: it is time to try out for a play.