TAPIT/new works Prepares to Excite Audiences with Medical Thriller
Photo Credit: Photo via Facebook.com/TAPITnew-works
The words “Patient Zero” were all it took to get Madison-based director Coleman on board with the upcoming production at TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater.
Coleman knew exactly what Producing Artistic Directors Danielle Dresden and Donna Peckett were talking about when they approached him and explained that a portion of their new play dealt with Patient Zero of the AIDS epidemic. Since 1983, Coleman has been involved in a National Institute of Health study on AIDS. He is patient 34 in that study and has made 67 visits to the NIH. Needless to say, the play Typhoid Mary, Patient Zero and the M Factor had an instant personal connection to him.
“I didn’t know much about Typhoid Mary, but I knew a fair amount about Patient Zero,” Coleman said. “I thought combing the two, along with a contemporary twist, was a brilliant conceit for a play.”
Typhoid Mary, Patient Zero and the M Factor, written by Dresden, is a medical thriller that connects the true stories of Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary,” and Gaétan Dugas, “Patient Zero” of the AIDS epidemic, with a fictitious and alarming outbreak set in present day. As modern characters struggle to contain the mysterious new disease, they must confront personal and political issues similar to those of the past, along with their own prejudices.
For Dresden, the creation of this fascinating and complex play has been decades in the making. Over 20 years ago a friend of Dresden’s sent her an article detailing the story of Mallon, a middle-aged Irish immigrant who was the first diagnosed healthy carrier of the highly infectious typhoid fever. Immediately she thought it would be a great idea for a play and saved it in her folder filled with ideas.
About a year and a half ago, Liz Light, who is now coincidentally playing Mallon in the show, sent Dresden a podcast detailing how Mallon was arrested and put in isolation. Dresden finally decided it was time to write the play. Sure enough, she was able to find that first article about Typhoid Mary that she saved 20 years ago.
“The thing is, there have been lots of novels and plays, even a dance performance, about Mary Mallon and Typhoid Mary, so I wanted to combine it with other things,” Dresden said. “That’s how I came to the idea of Patient Zero and the AIDS outbreak.”
Dresden then added a fictitious present day plague that affected foreign students and mosque attendees. This modern spin helps further explore how social values shape responses to public health issues, especially when marginalized populations are affected.
“As the three stories unfold, the audience will see the common language used to describe some of the same issues that people are facing,” Dresden said.
In order to ensure Dresden was headed in the right direction with her play, she sought out Dr. Judith Leavitt, a leading authority on Mallon and expert on medical history and public health, to serve as a consultant for the project.
“I have to give a lot of credit to Judy for her time and insight,” Dresden said.
Leavitt previously taught a course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the history of public health in America. When she realized not much had been written about Mallon as she was teaching the class, she took matters into her own hands and wrote Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health. Leavitt will facilitate post-performance discussions on select dates.
“I’m lucky to have the opportunity to see a subject I’m very interested in come to light in a different way than I would approach it as a historian or academic,” Leavitt said. “I really enjoyed talking to Danielle throughout the project and thought she did a terrific job.”
Dresden will perform in Typhoid Mary, Patient Zero and the M Factor along with Donavon Armbruster, Robert Helfinstine, Liz Light, Joshua Paffel and Donna Peckett. Costumer Rebecca Stanley, graphic and set designer Michael Duffy, and stage manager Steppe complete the production crew. TAPIT/new works formed in 1985 and creates, produces and performs original works.
Performances run Oct. 5 – 21 at the TAPIT/new works performance space located at 1957 Winnebago St. Madison, Wisconsin 53704. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com or by calling (608) 244 - 2938.