In January of 1976, in the middle of my senior undergraduate year at Creighton, I took a three-week intersession course before the spring semester called, if I recall correctly, “Acting Styles.” This rather pedestrian title did not come close to the intensity of a grueling ten to twelve hours a day of theatre games and acting exercises. It culminated in a production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Berthold Brecht. I was cast as Azdak, the slovenly, drunken, Solomonic judge, who takes bribes from the highest bidder and then does whatever the hell he wants. Azdak was also, in the director’s conception, bald, and so he asked me, in order to help me identify more closely with the character’s alienation, to shave my head. I listened, took a deep breath, and said yes. Later that day, I went to my barber in downtown Omaha and asked him to do it for me. Since he was ex-military, he was more than happy to help because he didn’t have a lot of college kids coming in asking to get all their hair cut off. Luckily, I had – and still have – a nicely-shaped, symmetrical head. If I ever did get dropped on it when I was a kid, there were not obvious dents.
I then went to Brandeis Department Store and bought a Norelco Triple Header Shaver and a green wool stocking cap – this was Omaha in January after all – and my course was set.
I had been in plays before, ever since the fifth grade in fact, but this was the first time I really felt like an Actor. Before, it had always been about Pretending; now it was about Becoming. In fact, since rehearsals continued into the spring semester and the show opened about two weeks into the semester, followed by a two-week run, I had to shave my head regularly for about a month after the rest of my friends and classmates had returned from winter break. This was not a common “look” for college students in the late 70’s. And the director was right: Doing this did make me an outsider – or rather MORE of an outsider – as I got quizzical looks, stares, and laughter from strangers and puzzled questions from friends, and all this pushed me to go deeper with my performance. (It was also something that, frankly, resulted in amazing PR for the show and sold out performances practically every night, a side-lesson that I have not forgotten.)
But what was so powerful for me was to live this character for weeks, to find a person who seemed so unlike myself right inside myself, and to have so many people who knew me watch me in this and go on this journey with me. I was amazed to have them tell me afterwards that, near the end, when Azdak, against his better judgment, defies the Powers That Be and Does The Right Thing, they were moved to tears, and that at the end, when Azdak is dragged out on stage, covered with blood after having been beaten by those Powers, they had to avert their gaze, that it was too painful to watch. To know that I had the power to move people in that way was quite thrilling and not a little scary.
Ultimately, this workshop, this play, this role were not enough to turn me away from Medicine as my profession. The pull of being able to participate in healing was too powerful. But what I took from all this was that healing is much broader than I had ever suspected and that knowing all the medical literature without being able to connect with the person sitting across from me would be useless. I knew then that acting would always be part of my life, and not just on a formal stage, cast in a play. This was the genesis of my struggle, my desire, my compulsion to integrate all the parts of my life, to see this life not as a bunch of unrelated parts but as a whole that expresses itself in everything I do. Acting can be healing. The Physician is a role. I don’t stop being one thing when I am something else. It’s all there all the time, and my hope is that I am – to quote a certain Mr. Sondheim – “bit by bit, putting it together.”