Black Box

What happens when memories are triggered when you least expect them? In my current life, practicing psychiatry, I usually think of triggering as something negative and difficult, but what happens when something positive and affirming is recalled?

This week, I was in Montreal on a cold November evening for the first time in thirty years. I walked around the Lower Campus of McGill University, again something I have not done for thirty years. Through the windows of buildings that I had known too well, I saw young people pouring over their work, as I had done. McLennan Library was bustling, a sign that there is less than one month before exams and papers are due. I shuddered with the memory of all that work, wondering in the moment how I had ever gotten everything done.

I was reminded of a long-forgotten schedule and I hastily turned up McTavish Street, heading from Sherbrooke Street toward Dr. Penfield Street, toward the Students Society of McGill University Building and the Players’ Theatre. Forty years ago, I spent more time with the Players’ Theatre than I did on any of the things I was supposed to be doing, like reading Harrison’s Textbook of Internal Medicine or reviewing anatomy for my surgical clerkship. The time I’d spent there had meant that I’d barely managed to pass anatomy, but, on the other hand, the time I’d spent there had helped me to survive four years of undergraduate medicine. I could never understand how medical studies could be so much more sterile and heartless than the English and Theatre from whence I’d come, but they were.

Players’ Theatre was founded in 1921, operated completely by undergraduate students at McGill, funded completely by ticket sales. I remember selling tickets to plays, although I don’t believe I ever sold one ticket to my medical school classmates. Theatre was my shameful secret and, even now, I feel I am confessing a weakness as I write this.

Buildings such as the Students Union Building are open at 7 p.m. and I walked in to the building and into the theatre. Players’ is a Black Box Theatre, a simple performance space with plain, black walls and sets are always minimal. It is a space where actors and audience can imagine freely what the scenes might be. As I looked at the space forty years later, the scenes I recall are vivid. I am experiencing flashbacks, I realize. This plain space, so ordinary and unremarkable, had kept my mind open as everything I had to remember in medical school threatened to close off and close down my imagination. The space had not saved my life, but it had certainly saved my mind.
I watched myself running from the space, after a performance, rushing to get back home to study such things as how the Loop of Henle works or the layers of the retina. How could I remember soliloquies, but not remember the layers of the retina?

I am sitting on the steps, and a young woman approaches me, “Can I help you?”

“Oh, no, I’m just remembering. I used to act here, when I was a student, forty years ago.”

“What do you do now?”

“I’m a doctor.”

The young woman stares at me. Slowly, she says, “Do you know that we’re doing Fables now? It seems odd, you being here tonight after forty years and being a doctor, like you’re coming full circle or something.” Fables is a play by Jackie Torrens with four characters, one of whom is a doctor – a traditional, male doctor, but wasn’t that the case forty years ago?

I stand to bid farewell to the young woman and to the space. For now as then, I must rush off. There is something I must do. I had forgotten this healing place, but I must not forget again. I am not sure I will be able to return in forty years to be reminded.

(A Typical Black Box Theatre)