Theater professor, students elevate RN voices with ‘Acute Care’

The wardrobe for “Acute Care,” which the Macalester College theater department will debut this week, is heavy on scrubs. (Macalester College photo)

Twin Cities nurses provided the inspiration for a new play opening tomorrow at Macalester College, with special, off-site performances scheduled next week at the Minnesota Nurses Association offices in St. Paul.

“Acute Care” draws from interviews with nurses conducted by director Beth Cleary, a theater professor at the college, and nine of her students. The 75-minute production offers a glimpse into nurses’ daily work and their perspectives on a health care system in crisis.

“We’re staging what it means to care,” Cleary said. “And nurses are kind of the model for how we care.”

The Macalester box office has scheduled show times at the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center to accommodate working nurses, with 8 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. shows Saturday, April 8, as well as 7:30 p.m. shows April 6 to 8 and a 2 p.m. show April 9.

MNA, the statewide nurses’ union, will host two shows (without stage lights) at 345 Randolph Ave., one at 8 p.m. April 13 and another at 4 p.m. April 15. To reserve tickets to any of the shows, visit or call 651-696-6359.

Cleary began interviewing nurses in 2010, inspired by their joint contract campaign at 14 metro-area hospitals that year. Union nurses made patient safety their top priority in negotiations, and at the height of the campaign, 12,000 MNA members joined a 24-hour strike for safe patient care.

“I was very moved by the stories that were being told during that educational campaign,” Cleary said. “Frankly, I had been living through my own parents’ decline in health and had seen up close and personal the kind of nursing that was making their lives better.”

The project simmered on the back burner as Cleary focused her energy on teaching and launching the East Side Freedom Library with her fellow Macalester professor – and husband – Peter Rachleff.

The ESFL’s mission to “collect and archive stories that need to be told,” Cleary said, prompted her to revisit the 2010 interviews more recently. Teaching a course on “Oral History and Performance” last fall, Cleary offered students the opportunity to conduct more interviews with Twin Cities nurses, creating a trove of oral history for Cleary, students and cast members to draw on in crafting “Acute Care.”

The script reflects themes that most often emerged from transcripts of those interviews, from patient advocacy to professional development, and it crackles with the lingo and humor nurses deploy during the course of a shift.

“Acute Care” is not an attempt to portray nurses as saints, Cleary said, and it reflects the “human behavior” that sometimes results when stress levels run high. It also reflects nurses’ candor in calling out injustices they witness on the job every day – a trait familiar to anyone who spent time on an Allina picket line last year.

“Nurses often talked to us about the need for health care reform and the immorality of the way human beings are treated in the health care system,” Cleary said. “It feels to me like we are in this moment where we are in a crisis – an acute crisis – about how we are going to proceed as a society. Are we really going to let people who don’t have experience in health care continue to determine who gets care, how much they get, what the quality is?

“Nurses have very big opinions about that.”


  1. Martha Utz says:

    Go Minnesota RN’s!!!!!

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