We often think of paramedics as fearless people with strong hands and reassuring voices but what are their lives really like?
Vitals, the latest play by 23-year-old playwright Rosamund Small, attempts to answer this question by shedding light on the highly stressful job of a first responder.
Audience members get a peek into the life of a dedicated EMS worker named Anna (played by Katherine Cullen) who loves her job but at times feels overwhelmed by her responsibilities.
Small’s play is inspired by her talks with Toronto medic Kaleigh O’Brien as well as her interaction with other emergency responders from the city’s EMS community.
Vitals is the most recent production by site-specific theatre company Outside the March (OtM) and is supported by Theatre Passe Muraille. OtM is known for pushing the boundaries of theatre by staging plays in unusual locations such as kindergarten classrooms, parks and churches.
My curiosity was piqued after I found out that the new immersive production directed by Mitchell Cushman was set in a real house in Toronto’s Roncesvalles area.
OtM admits only 30 audience members per show and the adventure begins just outside the Solarski Pharmacy where patrons are given blue medical gloves, a clip-on radio receiver, headphones and a map to the house.
There’s some minor static noise once the headphones are on but after a short while, I hear the emergency call… something about a house, a closed door and someone needing assistance.
The venue is a short walk away and a paramedic in a torn uniform points to the back of the house where I wait with the other ‘first responders’.
Anna walks in through the door wearing a pair of bloody gloves.
“You don’t know what a call is going to be like until you get there,” she says.
Anna then goes on about how calls for cases as minor as a toothache or a small cut can delay EMS workers from reaching the people who have an actual emergency. She also tells us that there are times when nothing can prepare a paramedic for the startling cases they encounter.
Katherine Cullen’s stunning performance enlightens us about the physical and emotional effects of a profession that is very often overlooked.
For a few seconds, it feels a bit odd to walk into someone’s house and start exploring but it suddenly hits me — paramedics must feel the same way when they are forced to barge into a stranger’s home.
Each room in the house has been transformed to make it look like some of the horrific emergency cases that Anna has handled and finds difficult to shake off. The design work is brilliant — there are tangled telephone cords on the floor, suicide notes floating in the tub of a teenage girl’s bathroom and a shocked paramedic quivering in a corner of a bedroom with walls and ceiling covered in plastic.
The kitchen smells like someone just made eggs for breakfast and there’s a small garden growing in the sink.
Audience members are moved from room to room, up and down the stairs and even get a sense of what it’s like to be in a drug dealer’s ‘lair’ filled with vapours that simulate crack smoke.
For me, all of this seemed a little confusing at first but I suppose that’s how EMS workers feel when they try to put the pieces together and make sense of a situation.
Anna leaves us at times but we can still hear her through the headphones, panting and talking fast. She recounts the struggles and joys of dealing with certain cases – for example, the delight of helping deliver a baby as well as the frustration of failing to prevent a suicide.
Anna seems calm and composed while she pours herself some coffee and passes around Timbits to the listeners. We soon learn that this persona is just a façade as she breaks down while relating a harrowing experience that haunts her time and again.
Katherine’s silence and alarmed expressions work better than graphic descriptions to convey the shock and horror of what Anna has seen and experienced while on duty. Expressionless EMS workers with blood stains on their faces and arms, move Anna out of the room when she begins to have a nervous breakdown.
Upon closer examination, we notice that the name tags of the assistants also say Anna. In fact, they’re all Annas. It makes us wonder if the other paramedics are a projection of the zombie-like state that Anna is in. Our hearts go out to the protagonist who tries her best not to let emotions get in the way of her work but eventually what she does for a living takes over her life.
Vitals is a unique, thought-provoking play that leaves us with a feeling of great respect for EMS personnel and the many challenges they face each day in order to save the lives of others.
Click here for ticket details.