Features Essays Published 22 February 2016

Junior Doctors: The People Behind the Scrubs

The director of new devised show Rounds talks about bringing junior doctors into the rehearsal room and telling their stories.

Anna Marshall

The director of new devised show Rounds talks about bringing junior doctors into the rehearsal room.

Over the past few years a few of my friends went to study medicine at university while I was pretending to be a fried egg on a daily basis. And while I believe theatre is incredibly important, these friends who were becoming junior doctors were doing something where a mistake could mean the difference between life and death.

I noticed on TV and in the news you always heard about patients stories and not the people behind that, doing the work to ensure those patients were receiving the best treatment possible. I also noticed that even though their jobs mostly involve making sure everyone is ok, not many people ever check how they’re doing. Often their hours are incredibly antisocial, they miss family events and their relationships suffer; to me this takes an incredibly selfless person and I was interested in telling their stories. This is why with Rounds we’ve given ourselves the rule that we can only use material which is based on the true stories we have found during our research.

It’s been one of the most interesting projects I’ve been involved in. I’ve recently graduated from the Lecoq School in Paris where we spent four weeks delving into a particular topic and creating material from that. I was in a group researching people who had become deaf or were born deaf, and this experience is what led me onto taking surveys and interviewing real doctors.

It’s always nerve-wracking going into a devising process like this because you can’t decide what the show will be beforehand and you just have to respond to what you find. I had no idea what we’d find before going into research and development and I’ve been completely shocked by what we’ve been discovering. These people are at the brink. Amongst junior doctors there’s a huge amount of depression, issues with mental health, substance abuse etc., and we’re not providing a strong enough support system for these extraordinary people. In fact the media are actively adding to their woes by dismissing their concerns very publically. It’s definitely made me incredibly passionate about what’s happening to junior doctors at the moment.

Rounds has been created with heavy involvement from junior doctors. Six junior doctors kindly volunteered their time to be interviewed in-depth about their motivations and decisions and their daily life as a junior doctors. Others have filled in online questionnaires.

In addition to this one of the most interesting days in the rehearsal room thus far was definitely when we had two current junior doctors come in to talk to us, respond to our material, offer their own personal experiences, comments and feedback on the process, and teach us actual procedures so that our work could be accurate. It was fascinating to watch them, particularly when they were demonstrating a cranial nerve examination and discovered they both have the same ‘doctor’ voice.

It was also humbling as a practitioner that they would care enough about us to use their limited time off to come help. By the same token they seemed flattered themselves that we’d find their lives interesting enough to make a show about. This is something I find reflective of most of the junior doctors I have met – they’re completely unaware of how much others respect them and support what they do.

In terms of the questionnaires, I found myself reading 40 responses to questions ranging from “what was your best day at work” to “the hardest moment of your career”. The voices coming through in these surveys were passionate, caring but also extremely worried about their NHS.

The in depth interviews have allowed us to really shape the six characters we follow in our show. Having one on one time meant I could really find out what their daily routines are like, have strong pictures of their work environments but also to find out how emotionally difficult their jobs are.

In terms of directing the piece it’s been a challenge to balance the medical aspect with the humanity. We knew we didn’t want to make a show about How To Be a Doctor but have instead focused on the people behind the scrubs and masks.

Some of the stories I’ve heard from these doctors have moved me considerably, but we’ve had to be careful not to get caught up with the patients – which it is so easy to do – and actually look at how do young doctors deal with these experiences and still go into the next patient with a smile on their face.

Another major theme has been work-life balance, or their lack of it. How do you theatrically and physically (we are predominantly a physical theatre company) show how doctors never manage to get their laundry done, do a food shop or visit their families in an interesting way? We’ve had to think very visually and really hone in to what is important and what is happening inside these doctors’ heads.

Rounds features physical theatre from Lecoq and Gaulier trained actors interwoven with video projection. The response we’ve had thus far to this show has been incredible; people are ready to engage with us, discuss what we’ve been doing and debate the current situation. These are definitely stories that need to be told right now.

Rounds will preview at the Southwark Playhouse on 28th Feb at 7pm, with a post-show debate. The panel for the debate will be made up of the Rounds cast, director, associate director and junior doctors.




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