‘Bill W. and Dr. Bob’ tackles stigma of alcoholism and power of recovery
Directly from off-Broadway, the Long Center for the Performing Arts presents the Texas premiere of Samuel Shem and Janet Surrey‘s critically-acclaimed play, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” with an official English opening on Tuesday, Feb. 2, and Spanish opening on Thursday, Feb. 7. Based on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is an inspiring and often humorous story of the two men and their supportive wives, who founded Al Anon.
Performed in both English and Spanish—a first for any show to perform at the Long Center—the work earned wide praise at New York’s SoHo Playhouse during an 11-month, 251 performance run in 2013-2014. Directed by the venue’s Artistic Director, Darren Lee Cole, this particular revival of the internationally recognized show embarks on a few firsts in the theater community. Not only does it mark the first time a highly-revered educational and medical institution is using theater as a medium to educate the public and their students, the play is also designed for both English and Spanish speaking audiences with the hope of sparking dialogue about addiction on a wider scale.
Shem is best known as the author of “The House of God,” a bawdy, satirical novel based on his experiences as an intern at a Boston hospital. “Shem” is the pen name of now-retired Harvard psychiatrist Stephen Bergman, who’s written several novels, plays and works of nonfiction.
From his Northeast home in December, Shem spoke about “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” and his vision of the production, which celebrates the power of recovery, educates the public and health-care community about the disease of alcoholism, and breaks down barriers and stigmas, encouraging support outreach to all who suffer and their friends and loved ones.
TODO: This is a drama telling the story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. What inspired you to write it?
Samuel Shem: Janet Surrey, my spouse, and I had been working with alcoholics and addicts for many years as therapists, and we in 1986 decided to write two things together: one from her area (psychology, which became our book “We have to Talk: Healing Dialogues Between Women and Men”), and from mine, a play. We came across the story and were amazed—it’s a great American success story that no one had written. We immediately felt the tap of the Muse on our shoulders at the same time: it had to be a live play, structured like an AA meeting: a man stands up on one side of stage and says “My name’s Bill W. and I’m an alcoholic” and then on other side, “ Dr. Bob, alcoholic.” The play itself shows their stories, and ends with them finishing telling their stories. The structure if Greek: you know what happens, it’s how it happens that is dramatic. When Bill says, “—and I’m an alcoholic,” the AA members in the audience shout out “Hi Bill!” And we’re off.
TODO: How has your being a psychiatrist and playwright informed “Bill W. and Dr. Bob”?
Shem: As a former psychiatrist, nothing (there are, to my knowledge, no other psychiatrists who are successful playwrights—and very few novelists. There’s a reason for that.). My having had my plays done before was key.
TODO: The play goes to the heart of what the practice of medicine is all about: the risk of isolation, and the healing power of good connection. It seems full of optimism and idealism. Was that one of your goals?
Shem: Absolutely. What Bill and Bob discovered was, in Bill’s words, “The only thing that can keep a drunk sober is telling his story to another drunk.” Amazing, that. Because of my medical novel, “The House of God,” I speak all the time to doctors and other health care workers on “Staying Human in Medicine,” and that’s the title of my talk: “Isolation is deadly, and connection heals.” Bill and Bob discovered that alcoholism is a disease with physical, psychological, and spiritual elements, and had to be treated in all three arenas—this was the birth of the holistic movement in America, in 1935. The dominant American culture worships the self, especially the self of a great man (and sometimes a great woman). “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is not about a great man, it’s about a great relationship—about the “and.” The magic, and the healing, is the mutual connection. Mainstream American media cannot understand that distinction. When Time magazine listed the most important people of the 20th century, they included Bill Wilson. Without Dr. Bob, Bill Wilson would be have been a long-dead, unheard-of, drunk.
TODO: The vision of the production is pointed. Why are people less likely to be humane with alcoholics than they might be with those attempting to heal from other diseases?
Shem: For many millennia, being an alcoholic was deemed a moral failure. Still is, in a way. Bill and Bob changed that: and Dr. Bob discovered that “If it is a disease, there must be a treatment.” He and Bill found a treatment.
TODO: I’ve read where you had several goals with “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” One of those was to write a great, historically-accurate play that was universally applicable (not just for recovering drunks). It seems to have worked. To what does the work owe such staying power?
Shem: The usual: great story, great characters, it’s astonishingly funny, people go through incredible suffering and come up redeemed—a happy ending that is historically accurate. In my writing, starting with my first novel, “The House of God,” I realized that my medical training was so horrible that if anyone were to read it, it had to ride on humor. I believe that deeply. We humans are at our best when we both laugh and cry—and sometimes cry for joy.
TODO: It may be an idealistic notion but can art, such as your play, change the world?
Shem: YES! I am a bit of an old-fashioned rarity in the writing of novels and plays and nonfiction—I was lucky that “The House of God” did change the world of how doctors are trained—to a more humane, and aware, and “connected” endeavor. Similarly with “Bill W. and Dr. Bob.” Many thousands of people have experienced this in live theatre, and understand drunks and their families—the two wives, Lois Wilson and Anne Smith, are main characters in the play, and the founding of Al Anon Family Groups is shown. My models in literature are world-changing works; a few come to mind: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Tolstoy, “The Jungle”, “Heart of Darkness,” “The Tin Drum,” “1984,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Shakespeare and Faulkner and Thich Nhat Hanh and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, etc. Writing is hard, and I already had a day-job as a doctor: I can’t write about, say, a divorce, or a vampire. Has a novel about a divorce or a vampire ever changed anything? I have two mantras for my writing: it has to be fun, and it has to try to change the world by bringing people through suffering and showing healing, and redemption. My wife and my most recent book, “The Buddha’s Wife: The Path of Awakening Together,” tries to do that too: showing that you don’t have to leave home to become a Buddha, but that there is a path of “She Who Stays,” and walks with others, not alone but in connection, in their communities, to end suffering, and bring awareness.
TODO: This particular revival of “Bill W. and Dr. Bob” is groundbreaking. Why now and not before?
Shem: Because two years ago, I was lucky enough at my advanced age to be offered a Professorship in Medicine in Medical Humanities by NYU Medical School—and it has turned out to be the most humane, vibrant, spirited place I’ve ever worked—including 30 years at Harvard Med. The Dean and CEO, Bob Grossman, quickly saw the importance and sense of putting NYU Langone Medical Center’s name on this show as exclusive sponsor, and using it as a central focus for an “Initiative on Alcoholism and its Treatment.” This will happen in January when we bring it to the Soho Playhouse off Broadway, and then the next stop Austin, and we hope then the rest of U.S.A. and all of Latin America.
TODO: The play is presented in both English and Spanish. The discussion of addiction can sometimes be problematic in the Latino community. How did the idea of performing the work in Spanish come about and do you sense dialogue is achievable in the Latino community as a result?
Shem: The issue is huge for all cultural groups, including Latinos, but there is very little live U.S.A. theatre in Spanish, and AA and Al Anon are very popular treatments for Latinos—it was a natural service that we could do. AA is as prominent in Latino culture as in any other; everybody who successfully joins AA shares the essence of being an alcoholic. As Dr. Bob says in the play: “Our service keeps us sober.” I have been in recovery for 26 plus years, since 1986, and this play is my service. Also, both the director of the play, Darren Cole, and I have places in Costa Rica: he built a theatre in Jaco, and Janet and I have a finca on a mountain in Nicoya. It’s a marvelous country—since 1948, no army! We had four performances in Jaco in December, before moving it to NYC.
TODO: You’ve described your novel, “The House of God,” as a novel of nonviolent resistance to an unjust system that treats the people down at the bottom of the medical hierarchy, the workers, very badly. In “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” your character Bill Wilson is a famous New York stockbroker who crashes with the stock market in 1929 and becomes a hopeless drunk. Do you feel he comes from an unjust system too, that is, the broker-dealer trade?
Shem: Yes! We are in the throes of the billionaire class, the one percent, and it is destroying our democracy. I just read a new study that shows that the top 20 people own as much wealth as the bottom 150 million people. It’s not by chance that AA was founded in the Depression. One of Dr. Bob’s relatives, his daughter Sue, suggested to Janet and me that the reason AA was founded at that time was that nobody worked, and they could sit around and talk. By the way, another study shows that last year was the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.A. for the past 35 years. I don’t think that this is a coincidence. Nor is the past 10-year epidemic of binge drinking on college campuses.
TODO: Dr. Bob Smith, the other title character in “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” is a surgeon from Ohio who has also been an alcoholic for 30 years, often going into the operating room with a hangover. Is he based on people in the health care profession?
Shem: He’s based on the historical record. We wrote a meticulously accurate historical portrayal of all the characters, including Bob. However, substance abuse is a big problem in medicine—the addiction rates are higher than that of the normal population. Bob was not only a drunk, but a daily drug addict—he took sedatives—barbiturates—every day to steady his hands for surgery. As he says in the play, “Lucky I haven’t killed somebody.” NA—Narcotics Anonymous—and other 12 step programs of all kinds follow the AA model.
TODO: Have you been to Austin before and what are your expectations for the play here?
Shem: Yes, I have. The play was done at the 75th anniversary International AA convention in San Antonio in 2010, and I came to Austin afterwards to visit my dear old friend, Terry Malick. I also hope to see Tim O’Brien the writer while I’m here, and to talk with the people at the University Texas Health Services who have an active program to deal with student substance abuse. We are planning a U.S.A. tour of colleges to deal with the epidemic of binge drinking on campus. And, just this month, the figures came out that all in all in America, alcohol abuse is at a 35 year high. Our expectations are of an enlightened city that will love the play in both Spanish and English!
Bill W. and Doctor Bob runs February 2-7, 2016 in the Rollins Studio Theatre. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.
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