Much like an athlete, a performer’s body requires near-constant maintenance and attention. A clogged nostril, an itchy throat or even a twinge of muscle pain can induce panic for an actor, threatening his or her place on stage when the lights come up.
Cue Dr. David Norene, the Sutter internist who has been treating cast members of the Sacramento Music Circus for 25 years as of this season. A Sacramento native and longtime arts appreciator, the soft-spoken doc claims a special touch with theater types. Lending a hand and a stethoscope to ensure the age-old summer tradition goes on without a hitch is a pleasure and an honor, he said.
Founded by a trio of business-minded Broadway buffs in 1951, the Music Circus first came to life in a massive blue-and-green canvas tent at the site of the current Wells Fargo Pavilion. It was the first professional musical theater-in-the-round west of the Mississippi and only the fourth in the country.
Decades later, the summer arm of the California Musical Theatre has maintained its lofty reputation with the success of more than 400 productions, from classics like “Show Boat” and “The King and I” to the whimsical “Peter Pan” and tribal rock tribute “Hair” this season. Now in an air-conditioned building, erected in 2003, the productions continue to attract big-name actors from Los Angeles and New York, who visit Sacramento to flex their theater muscles for just a few weeks at a time.
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What audiences may not know is that the delightful stage spectacles come at a physical cost, Norene said. A beaming dancer may be triple pirouetting through a twisted ankle, while a star who belts a high note might be guzzling honey and tea in the wings.
Still, as the old adage has it, the show must go on. Norene keeps appointment slots for the ailing singers and dancers in his midtown office, where he can prescribe painkillers and other temporary cures to get them through the 10-day rehearsal periods for each of the season’s five shows. He has also, on at least one occasion, served as the “doctor in the house” – running backstage during a performance of “Man of La Mancha” to assist an actor with a broken leg after a fight scene.
The physician has already treated two Music Circus performers this season, and anticipates others as the summer wears on. We sat down with Norene for a chat about knee braces, throat lozenges and making it all shimmer and shine.
More than anything, they’re used to being directed. They like very specific instructions. It really works better if you say, “take this medication, this many times, at this time, for this many days” – as opposed to “try some Mucinex.”
Dr. David Norene, internal medicine specialist with Sutter Health
Q: We’d wager it got pretty hot under that circus tent back in the 1990s. How did the actors handle it?
A: When it was the original tent – I don’t know if it was the heat, but it was something – I used to see a lot more problems. I saw a lot of people for heat-related problems, respiratory problems, throat problems and injuries. Muscle injuries, ankle injuries, knee injuries. It’s a small percentage now compared to what I used to see.
Q: How is seeing the actors who come to your office different from seeing routine patients?
A: A lot of people, when they come to see me oftentimes they will request time away from work. And actors don’t ask for that, because they know they can’t. There is no option. My role is to help them to get better and function as best they can. There are no understudies for any roles. If somebody can’t perform, the show goes on – but it’s a different experience. Once the show has started, if somebody is taken out, their role is just eliminated from the show.
Q: How do they deal with that kind of pressure?
A: I’ve seen people in my office with some really significant problem, and I’ve seen them perform on stage that evening. And I know what’s wrong with them, and it’s amazing what they do. They just have a way of mentally focusing on what needs to be done, and it gets done.
Q: To what extent do actors perform their own care, and at what point do they come to you?
A: Actors are very sensitive to their bodily functions. And if their vocal range is off a little bit, and if anything is out of their usual experience … a lot of times they just want things checked out. Usually they’ll have tried something like a decongestant or an antihistamine, gargling, an inflammatory spray. More than anything, they’re used to being directed. They like very specific instructions. It really works better if you say, “take this medication, this many times, at this time, for this many days” – as opposed to “try some Mucinex.”
Q: Why take on this responsibility?
A: It’s turned out to be a very rewarding experience. I’ve had actors come up to me on the street in New York and say they remembered me and thank me. It’s been very, very positive … I work well with those people, and I’ve learned what works for me in terms of how to interact and what works and what doesn’t. It’s rare that I’ve experienced any drama queens, so to speak. There are a few that come to mind, but most of them are very appreciative to see someone that has experience in this field outside of Manhattan.