From acting to anatomy

Robyn McBurney, the medical student formerly known as actor

We’re not supposed to choose favorites. But I always suspected, while my daughter was at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix, that one particular theater student was destined for a life on stage.

Her instincts, her timing, her coupling of cynicism with compassion. All made her a perfect vessel for capturing and conveying the essence of human nature. Her mom would have been perfectly justified in clearing display space several years ago for that first Tony or Obie Award.

But Robyn McBurney chose another path. In less than a week, she’ll start a five-year program in medicine at Norwich Medical School, part of the University of East Anglia. Norwich City bills itself as “the most medieval city in Britain.” Think castle, cathedral and cobble streets.

Intrigued by McBurney’s choice, I asked her to share a bit about why she was trading acting for anatomy. She graciously offered up the college application essay that helped her land the gig, which I’m honored to share with “Stage Mom” readers. My only change was separating her work, in italics below, into paragraphs.

When you have done something all your life, it is difficult to tell that there are entire parts of yourself that have never been explored. I am trained in classical, contemporary and improvisational acting, as well as technical design and work for theatre, directing, choreography, and playwriting.

One of my acting teachers brought guests into class one day, and while they were there our teacher casually asked us to raise our hands if we were planning on going to university to study theatre. Around me 4 hands shot into the air, a fifth following behind a bit more hesitantly. That class had only 6 students.

Robin McBurney applying gore make-up to one of the students who chose acting studies, who now hopes McBurney will become better at healing wounds than creating them

At that moment, I realized that there was more to me than pursuing what I could already do. I saw the future as a place of potential, of novelty and challenges, a place where theatre helps me find my footing, but where it’s up to me to find my own balance.

I wanted to study what would give me a chance to make a difference in individual lives, give me the opportunity to see humans from the outside for once, instead of always trying on new characters. I have the opportunity to create who I am, and I want to be a doctor.

When I came out to my parents as interested in medicine they were initially shocked of course, they thought it was just a phase that I was maybe too caught up in the glamour of television doctors, the latter of which was certainly true at first, but in that respect they were right and the desire to stroll casually into bars after a long day at the hospital, still wearing my lab coat, was replaced by a desire to know. I want to know the answers, especially to people.

I realized that, though I don’t believe in fate, my whole life had been preparing me for this step that I am now ready to take. I have, of course, prepared myself for this step in conscious ways, doing a summer of hospital volunteer work, becoming certified in CPR, First Aid and use of an AED by the American Heart Association, studying biology and chemistry and physics, but I have also been preparing for years in ways that I couldn’t have recognized until now.

Some important elements of medicine are teamwork, leadership, and making calculated decisions under time constraints, all of which I have been doing for years, under a different name. Leading the Technical Crew for a theatrical production is not unlike working with patients as a doctor; however, in that situation, the entire production is the patient.

Future medical student Robyn McBurney (kneeling) working her theater tech magic for an Arizona School for the Arts Showcase held at ASU Gammage in Tempe

As a techie, you must know the show with complete conviction and how it ought to run to be able to anticipate any problems that may arise, much in the same way that doctors must fully understand human anatomy so that they can anticipate any major problems that could occur if they find any deviation from the norm.

Through tech work, I have recognized that there are different ways to approach a problem. A prop that breaks onstage five minutes into the first act could easily be ignored, but if it is a danger to the actors, or perhaps becomes an integral part of the plot later on, it must be fixed quickly. They must address the problem as soon as it occurs, and, once the immediate danger is avoided, find a way to modify the prop so that it remains operational for the remainder of the run.

A doctor has the responsibility to care for the patient, to make sure that anything that needs to be fixed is fixed, whether it is a fix intended to solve a specific anomaly, or it is a fix that will circumvent any future problems caused by an underlying condition of the patient.

McBurney sporting basic black--perfect with lab coats and surgical scrubs

When a doctor leaves work each evening, no one will line up outside to nervously catch a glimpse of them. A doctor who performs will not get a standing ovation. As a technician, I have made a difference that may or may not be recognized, but I have made a lasting impact nevertheless.

Healing, to me, means raising the quality of life, whether through the art of medicine or of theatre. I want to be able to heal in a physical way, as well as in an artistic way, realizing my full potential.

You’ll want to set this baby aside in case you need proof one day that training in the arts has all sorts of applications beyond the stage. Should the paramedics ever find their way to my door, I hope they won’t mind ferrying me over to Norwich.

— Lynn

Note: Were McBurney attending acting school, I’d send her off with “Break a leg!” But I suppose that’s frowned on in doctor world. Instead, I’m pleased to share a bit of fashion inspiration with McBurney as she enters British life — Visit and search for 100 Years/Style/East London. No thank you card is necessary.

Coming up: Exploring Chinese arts and culture, A pair of pandoras


2 responses to “From acting to anatomy

  1. Robyn has always been the sort of person who could immerse herself in a goal and see it fulfilled. I am so proud of you, Robyn! You’ve gone very far since I saw you in 8th grade!

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