'Florence Nightingale: Live!' a fundraiser for Onstage Theatre in Martinez
By Lou Fancher
If it wasn't for too-loud, mildly offensive rap music playing on a BART passenger's iPod, Candy Campbell might never have composed her 50-minute, one-woman show.
"Florence Nightingale: Live!" is the improbable outcome of that auditory encounter created by Campbell, an actor, filmmaker, author and professor of nursing at University of San Francisco. Bringing history to life June 17-18, at the Campbell Theater in Martinez, the interactive performances benefit Onstage Theatre.
Campbell, who lived in Concord from 1992 until she moved last year to Rossmoor, has long led a double life. The Portland, Ore., native became a licensed nurse, working with veterans in a Southern California VA hospital, then as a neonatal nurse and health care administrator and educator in clinic and academic settings.
Along the way, she created an award-winning film about micropremature babies, authored books on parenting premature babies and nursing, and wrote solo shows and theatrical presentations she has performed as a professional actor in theaters and at health care workshops, corporate seminars, and more.
It was while developing one of several plays she has written about Florence Nightingale, the pioneering, 19th Century English woman who transformed the field of nursing, that Campbell was provoked by rap.
"It was irritating, but I started thinking about prosaic language in precise form, the beauty of poetry. I rewrote my two-and-a-half hour show to fit the client's 50-minute format and came up with the spoken word poems that end the show."
Prior to the final, massive edit, Campbell worked as usual; spending months to research her play's central character and the 1800s before engaging San Francisco-based theater director Robert Weinapple to coach and question her work.
Because there is only one recording of Nightingale's voice at an advanced age (made on Edison Parafine Wax Cylinder in 1890), Campbell used "creative license" to determine the sound of her character's voice at age 17 and in mid-age.
"There are vocal gymnastics involved. Before each show, I prepare alone, reviewing the script, reading some of the 15,000 letters she wrote."
While the 'Live!" show begins light and humorous, becomes mildly serious, then lifts to a spontaneous, 20-minute Q&A with the audience before swinging sweetly to a final caregiver love song, Campbell says the show's purpose is deep.
"Most people only know her as "The Lady With the Lamp" and have no idea what life was like for her, for women at that time, for the British, about the Crimean War and so on."
Even Campbell, a nurse and self-proclaimed aficionado of Nightingale's seminal book, "Notes on Nursing," made discoveries.
"She was progressive, intense about training. But it wasn't until 2005 that I realized she was brilliant and an expert in many other areas. I didn't know she was pretty much an invalid during her last 50 years. She spoke five languages fluently, helped translate Plato from the Greek."
In 1854, Nightingale led 37 nurses into the Barracks Hospital during the Crimean War. There, 18,000 patients in unsanitary conditions propelled her to create what is the basis of modern triage, standards for sanitary care, and to establish the polar area diagram as a means of portraying statistics with graphic representations.
Based on her reports and practices, the Nightingale Training School was established and her contributions were honored with national and international awards, including in 1907 the first Order of Merit given to a woman.
Campbell says Nightingale would have insights to offer about 21st century health care. She's often asked to share them during the Q&A portion of her show.
"She'd say it's important to have health care as a right for the populous. She'd be clear that it's not just for the people who can afford it and that those who can afford it, should help those who cannot."
Branching into larger issues, Nightingale would likely object to having a few people determine and pass regulations that impact a large population, and would find objectionable people who dissociate a clean environment and health.
"These things are inexorably linked," says Campbell.
Campbell says her nursing students and audiences are provided the same narrative: service, "never lording it over another person" and devotion to a craft results in safe, humanitarian caregiving.