Diane Flacks finds the gallows humour and drama in a Waiting Room
by Drew Rowsome
"What got us through was to be funny," says Diane Flacks of the events that inspired her play Waiting Room.
"My son was in the hospital for most of his first year and then sort of back and forth for the next few years. It was this inexplicable, dangerous, terrifying experience that was really like a roller coaster. Any of us who's had experience with the medical system, especially in crisis, you can, from hour to hour, feel like you're going crazy. You just don't know what's happening and you don't know who to trust. As a human being, chemically and in every other way, you're going up and down in these wild kind of swings. The thing that got us through in the moments that seemed the least hopeful was this subversive, absurd humour. It wasn't like we were walking around cracking jokes, it's just that things presented themselves as ridiculous, or something would happen, and you just had to crack a joke. The weird thing is it wasn't just me, almost everyone I met had some kind of gallows humour propelling them forward. I hope that Waiting Room shows that and has a lot of that, because I think that's the way most people do think."
Flacks will not reveal much about the plot other than it is "centered on these parents, you never see the child. It's a lot about their relationship with each other and with the doctors in the system. And that's where you get a lot of conflict. And some remarkable miraculous moments. It also centers around this main doctor who is a neuron-oncologist so his whole field is healing the brain. And he discovers that he has an anomaly with his brain. I'm really interested in what happens to a professional who thinks they have it all figured out and then they're the one who's challenged. Everything they believe in, every coping mechanism the parents thought they should have, now do they have it."
Hospital waiting rooms are simultaneously highly tense and intensely boring. "You will eat chocolate and you will read People magazine," notes Flacks. "You might think you won't, but you will. It's kind of amazing that human beings don't just collapse. What happens when you're waiting and anticipating something and it either happens in a different way or it doesn't - I think people think that when you're waiting, you're pacing or you're grave but I think what most people do, is they try not to be grave. Even in the worst times there's that purely human desire to move forward. You either move forward or you give up."
Flacks quotes an Emily Dickinson poem,
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops
"I thought it was such a beautiful poem but at certain moments it was painful to consider because I didn't necessarily believe it. But I knew that somewhere in me that's what was happening: there was this thing with feathers that just wasn't stopping. The hope inside me was just continuous despite myself. You have to be realistic but there is also something sort of romantic about it. One of the questions that the play asks is, when do you stop? And how? And how do we have those conversations? It's a really tough conversation but in a critical care hospital you have to be able to have that conversation, not matter the result. I met a lot of medical professionals who believe their job is about life, not about death. They're not going to have that conversation. They're just going to keep trying to change an outcome or have a positive outcome. As human beings, because we're mortal, you have to bring death into the room because if you don't, I think it does affect the way you receive your care. And having the conversation doesn't mean that you aren't still hoping."
Death is a heavy subject and it's important to note that Flacks, despite some highly dramatic turns including the recent Freda and Jem's Best of the Week, is at heart a comedian. Her book Bear With Me mined comic gold from the horrors of pregnancy and motherhood, and she is still most famous for her Emmy nomination for work on Kids in the Hall. She is best known for making audiences laugh. "Most people who are comedic who do other things don't want that, I've resisted it myself in the past. But the comedy is there because of the darkness and if it isn't very dark then it isn't going to be funny, I think. For me, I've always done both but I think it's helpful that I have a background in comedy, no matter how sad or grave I write, it helps the rhythm. It's all tools, a means to an end."
Waiting Room and its themes resonate, "Any time I talk about this play - and part of the reason I wrote it was because I really believe people need to talk about these things - I'll get a story from someone about their terrible collision with the medical system or some really insensitive way that terrible news was imparted to them by a resident, or some mistake that was made and handled terribly. It's not that I want to blame the system and we have expectations that are really hard to understand as well. It all makes for a really complicated drama."
It has been a long process getting Waiting Room to the stage, "I originally pitched the idea of a brain doctor with a problem with his brain and he's treating children and how does it affect them as a person. I don't know that I would have given me money but they did commission it." Several readings and years of development at Tarragon, resulted in a Enbridge playRites award. "They flew me to Calgary for the award and while I was there I had one or two nights completely alone so I told myself 'I am going to finish this play, in this hotel room, when I'm getting this award.' And I found the ending and finished the first draft. I'm very grateful to them, I know Enbridge is oil but I'm very grateful. We artists, there's no money anymore, I'm not going to turn my nose up at something."
Flacks' son is doing well so there is at least one happy ending, but what happens to the doctor? Is he able to have the conversation he needs to have? Flacks doesn't hesitate, "I'm not going to tell you." We'll just have to visit the Waiting Room to find out.
Waiting Room runs Tues, Jan 13 to Sun, Feb 15 at Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. tarragontheatre.com