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Professor’s Autobiographical Play ‘Drifting’ Is A Universal Story

Siblings: you love them, you hate them, and you go through a lot with them. Relationships between brothers and sisters endure circumstances and challenges unlike any other. But no matter how annoying your brother or sister might be, family is family at the end of the day. Theatre professor Bill Doan has a special understanding of what it truly means to be a brother, which is the subject of his new play. 

Doan’s play “Drifting” follows the relationship of a brother and sister, who is in a vegetative state after a traumatic brain injury. The play travels from the sister’s hospital room to inside the minds of each character. The play confronts the ethical challenges surrounding prolonging the sister’s life and the difficult decision the brother and the family have to make. Professor Doan connects with this story in a personal, yet tragic, way.

“It’s autobiographical. My youngest sister, in December of 2012, was in a car accident and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. Two years later in December 2014, our family had to make the decision to withdraw her from life support and let her go,” Doan said.

After the passing of his sister Samantha, a 42-year old mother of two, Doan began writing as a way to make sense of his loss. “My intention when I wrote the play was to understand what was happening to my sister, to try to figure out what it meant to my family,” Doan said. “I just had to make something out of this, so literally in three days I wrote the play.”

Doan sitting next to a hospital bed used as a central prop in the show.

Doan sitting next to a hospital bed, the central prop in the show.

Doan became worried that his play was too personal. and it wouldn’t connect with very many people. However, when he read the work over again and made some slight edits, he created a universal story: one of “loss, of pain, of grief.”

Among these themes, “Drifting” also asked questions about the ethics surrounding modern medicine, and removing someone from life support. For Doan, these issues make the play even more topical. “[They are] common dilemmas for us in the modern world,” Doan said. 

After Doan finished his final draft of the play, he took the show public. “Drifting” was submitted to the famous Dixon Place Theatre, a nonprofit institution designed to support independent art and artists in downtown New York City. The organization is known for starting the careers of famous groups and actors, like the Blue Man Group and John Leguizamo. Dixon Place accepted “Drifting” for a workshop premiere in March of 2014. Basically, a workshop premiere means that the show was performed without lights, set, or sound.  

After gaining some serious attention and positive reviews from the Dixon Place performance, Doan formed a partnership with the Hershey Playhouse. Since then, Doan’s cast has performed  “Drifting” for medical students at The Hershey Medical Center. “We performed it for the whole second year medical class at Hershey, 230 med students. We got such strong feedback from them about how important they think this story is,” Doan said. 

Now, “Drifting” is being considered as more than a play. “I’m in conversation with the Penn State Press to do an adaptation of this as a graphic novel,” Doan said. “I have about 100 drawings that I’ve already done, it tells the story in a different way, but I think I have a real desire to see this story and the questions it asks.”

One of Doan's graphic novel illustrations.

One of Doan’s illustrations for “Drifting.”

Professor Doan hopes to continue growing the show in the future. He wants to incorporate video clips and a new sound design to help tell the story how he always saw it. Ultimately, he hopes “Drifting” will end up in professional theaters across the United States.

But in the short term, Doan has plans for the upcoming spring semester. “Our goal in the spring is to test the play again here in State College, to see the new changes and invite people from cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, to see it as a proof of concept,” Doan said.

The more Doan works on the play, the more he wears it on his sleeve, literally. “One of the things that comes up in the play, is I have a tattoo up on my arm of a turtle that my sister gave me one night, and it really needs fixed, but now since this happened I decided to leave it the way it is,” Doan said. “I’ve also added these tattoos since she was sick and as I develop the show, I’m going to get more ink, and the whole piece will be based on the ways in which siblings mark us and become a part of us.” 

Doan's turtle tattoo mentioned in the play.

One of Doan's latest catholic tattoos for his sister.

One of Doan’s latest catholic tattoos for his sister.

“Drifting” doesn’t just explore the ethical relationship between modern medicine and death or the connections between brothers and sisters; it talks about what it means to be apart of another person’s identity.

“It’s easy to talk about what it means to have a sibling. It’s really difficult to talk about what it means to lose a sibling,” Doan said. “When you lose one of your siblings, a part of your history disappears. As siblings we carry each other’s stories with us throughout life. The play became a way for me to reflect on that.”

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To learn more about “Drifting,” visit the play’s Facebook page for more information.

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About the Author

Nick Weiss

Nick is a videographer at OnwardState. He is a sophomore in the College of Communications, studying as a Film & Video major. With most of his experience in documentary film, Nick continues to tell stories at Penn State. Email him [email protected]

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