If you've ever wondered what would've happened had Othello was been treated for his seizure or had Ophelia been dragged out of the stream and been given bag-valve-mask ventilations, then you should've seen "Emergency Shakespeare," in which the all-volunteer U.K. St. John Ambulance Service (SJAS) saved the Shakespearean day with local five-star 1623 Theatre Company at the QUAD art center in Derbyshire, England.
The theater company performed eight accident scenes from Shakespeare, each lasting 10-15 minutes, with St. John's Ambulance, Derbyshire Division, responding to the emergencies.
The Derbyshire St John Ambulance is part of the larger national St. John Ambulance Service. The Derbyshire Unit is comprised of 1300 volunteers with eight ambulances. They provide ALS, BLS, and First Responder services.
The production was the brainchild of Jan Reynolds, who coordinates QUAD dramatic productions in Derbyshire. QUAD is a partnership between Derby City Council, Arts Council England and EM Media. The 2009 theme was "Don't Stop Believing," the objective of which was to encourage community groups to think about what they already do and give it an artistic spin.
A New Twist
Reynolds contacted SJAS because the service had provided standby support at the company's outdoor theater events. Divisional Officer for the City of Derbyshire Rich Chaplain agreed it would be a good opportunity to promote the service and would provide a good training exercise. When he discussed it with some of the service's members, the Shakespeare idea was born.
Once SJAS signed on, Reynolds put a call out to amateur and professional theater companies. The local Shakespearean acting troupe, 1623, responded with enthusiasm. The troupe performs Shakespeare in non-traditional theatre spaces and would usually charge admission or require a fee; however, they agreed to perform "Emergency Shakespeare" for free.
The troupe and EMS providers set goals, which included:
- To instigate an exciting collaboration between an community group and professional artist;
- To show quality art created through that collaboration;
- To raise awareness of SJAS;
- To raise awareness of how to deal with medical emergency situations; and
- To increase access to Shakespearean script and text.
This set the stage for dialogue about producing the event. Scenes were decided upon to give a range of health-related issues and. The action would not be confined to the stage proper. This was unbeknownst to them and offered a maximum reality for the EMS providers involved.
SJAS members rehearsed only twice with the actors in the performance space. They were deliberately excluded from most of the rehearsals because Chaplain wanted it to serve as a drill scenario. The SJAS "actors" would have to handle not only the patient, but the crowd and audience as well. The goal was to have them respond to the situation as they found it, and it was up to the actors to convince the providers and audience members of the scenes' reality.
On the day of the performance, each scene was staged in a different part of the building (or outside, in the case of Ophelia's drowning), which meant that many audience members happened upon it, as with a normal incident. "Many people came over to see what was happened," said Reynolds. "People love an emergency!"
Othello's epileptic fit happened in front of the main doors, so audience members had to be reassured that it was OK to come into the performance center. Aside from scenes from Hamlet and Othello, the group performed scenes from "The Winter's Tale," which includes a panic attack, and "Romeo and Juliet," which has an abdominal stab wound and mass casualty incident. Chaplain narrated the care SJAS members provided, not only providing useful information to the audience, but also entertainment value.
The SJAS team remarked how well the performance served as a training tool. "We usually practice on each other, and the actors had challenged us," Chaplain said. "For example, Ophelia needed to be lifted out of the pool [filled] with real water, and of course her mental state of health meant she was not compliant. We also had to deal with the crowds/audience and passersby, most of whom were totally taken by surprise or did not realize that it was a performance."
The actors learned something as well. "Working with St. John Ambulance has been a highly rewarding experience," said Ben Spiller, 1623 artistic director and producer. "We've learned a lot about the physical and psychological effects of the conditions of Shakespeare's characters, and there's no doubt that our work has been enriched as a result."
Building on the success of "Emergency Shakespeare," the National Theatre in London has decided to stage its own version next season.
Barry A. Bachenheimer, MA, Ed.M, BA, EMT-B, is the director of instructional services for the Caldwell-West Caldwell Public Schools in New Jersey. He's been involved in EMS for more than 24 years with a variety of agencies. He currently works with the Roseland Fire Department in Roseland, N.J., the East Brunswick Rescue Squad in East Brunswick, N.J., and the West Orange first Aid Squad in West Orange, N.J. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to visit the 1623 Theatre Company.