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T. Co tackles new, original play about significant innovation in history

October 17, 2017

Dental innovator Horace Wells (Robbie Gold) and his wife Elizabeth Wells (Hannah LeBaron) visit the family of William Morton PHOTO/Maddie Epperson

   How do 19 teenagers tell a story about ether, one of the first pain-relieving drugs to be used in surgical history, to an audience of international medical experts who already know everything about it?

  That was the challenge presented to Theater Company director John Minigan two years ago when he was commissioned by Weston residents Dr. Manisha Desai and her husband, Dr. Sukumar Desai to create a hour-long play about the first historical uses of ether for the Ninth International Symposium on the History of Anesthesia.

  Based on an innovation that transformed the medical world, Theater Company’s original play Ether Day will hit the stage next week. Commissioned by The Anesthesia History Association, the new production will theatricalize this “major event in human history,” T. Co director John Minigan said. “It was the beginning of the end of pain.”

  To find a focus for the play, Minigan and the students of T. Co researched historical documents and letters left behind by those whose lives were affected by ether during June Academy in the course Ether Day, co-taught by Minigan and science department head Erica Cole.

  Researching the vast amount of history behind the topic has been an enriching experience according to Minigan.

  “Normally when we’re writing a play, we [start with] nothing and we’re trying to generate everything. But this is more; we have a whole library worth of information. [Deciding] what three or four things are we are going to focus on to makes it fun and engaging,” Minigan said.

  On October 26th, Ether Day will be performed during the International Symposium of Anesthesia at the Westin Copley Hotel in Boston. As the first commissioned play T. Co has ever done, the high-stakes experience has been new for everyone.

  “It’s a little intimidating,” Minigan said. “We’re performing a play about the history of ether in front of people whose field of study is the history of ether. Most of them will know all the details. The question is, how are we going to tell them a story they don’t know?”

  In order to portray the story in a new way, the cast and crew of Ether Day have focused on unique methods of storytelling, according to sophomore Helen Townsend who was cast in the play from the beginning.

  “Since this is a historical event, we didn’t want to tell it like a normal, linear story. Instead, we’re exploring the Greek Chorus way of storytelling and utilizing the narration [of] multiple people,” Townsend said. “And we’re using tableaux, which are still pictures of a moment in time.”

  Much of writing of the play has revolved around students’ improvisation on various scenes refined by feedback from the full cast.

  “The improv goes 100% into the writing [of the script].” Townsend explained. “For the past two months or so, we’ve been doing a lot of the improv scenes where Mr. Minigan would put us into groups and give us a prompt [to act out]. We’ll record the scenes and the stage managers will type up what’s happening in the scenes as they are going on.”

  One main focus of the play is William Morton, a complex historical character who first put the idea of anesthetizing patients into practice in 1846.

  “He was kind of a con artist. He was wanted in multiple states. He kept moving somewhere, finding a wealthy family, getting engaged to the daughter in the family, then his shenanigans [caused him] to run out of town,” Minigan said. “But at the same time, he created this incredible invention that has saved countless lives. Before the use of ether, 1 in 4 patients died [in] surgery.”

  According to Cole, ether had a significant impact on medicine at the time.

  “I believe it was a game changer,” Cole said. “If ether didn’t become the discovery it was, I personally don’t believe that surgery would make the advancements that it did.”

  Before anesthesia, surgery was painful and often life-threatening procedure according to Cole. Shock from the pain and blood loss often lead to death, and surgery had to be done quickly to minimize these risks..

  “Once you could take away the pain [with anesthesia], people were able to really refine that process [of surgery]. [Because] people could perform surgeries that were much longer, this lead to all of the discoveries that came along such as the way to stop bleeding, and ways to do more delicate types of surgery,” Cole said.

  Although most historical documents tell the stories of male doctors and patients, Ether Day will focus on women’s roles in the history of ether, Minigan said.

  “All of the doctors and all of the patients are male, and so where are the women in the story? We’ve been focused on that, and that’s opened some things up and made it clear to us that we can tell a story that is new to the audience but still historically accurate,” he said.

  Ether Day’s grim historical background poses unique challenges to writing of its script, but the prospect of retelling the stories of real people and conveying their relevance in history is new and exciting for T. Co tri-president and senior Hannah LeBaron.

  “It’s hard to find the humor in a sometimes troubling story about real people who really suffered.” LeBaron said. “[But] I’m sure it will be a fresh feeling to portray people who have already existed and feel like you have some power over the legacy they have left behind.”

  Ether Day will open on October 27 & 28 at 7:30 PM in the auditorium. Admission will be $5 for students/seniors/military and $10 for the general public. For students, the Friday night performance on the 27 will be free.

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