Playwright and actor Nandita Shenoy

Actors often have side hustles, from waiting tables to word processing, but rarely are their performance skills so utilized as when they become “standardized patients,” presenting scripted symptoms to medical students in simulated doctor-patient exchanges. Actor and playwright Nandita Shenoy has played these mock clinical gigs in her career, and drew on her experiences for Esspy, her charming, funny and moving comic drama getting its world premiere with New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, NJ.

Shenoy told me, “I have worked a lot as an SP at a number of medical schools, and my experiences inspired me to write this play. My takeaway is that the way you deliver the message is just as important as the message itself, and actors are particularly skilled in message delivery.” For the record, she added, “The title of my play is the phonetic spelling of SP.”

Peter J. Kuo directs the three-character play in its premiere production, which runs Feb. 22-March 17, 2024 at NJ Rep. The cast features Tim Liu, Lipica Shah  and Ching Valdes-Aran.

The production team includes set designer Jessica Parks, lighting designer Jill Nagle, technical director Brian Snyder, costume designer Patricia E. Doherty, sound designer Nick Simone, production stage manager Kristen Pfeifer, assistant stage manager Rachael Malloy, assistant lighting designer Janey Huber and master electrician James Lockhart.

I’ve interviewed Shenoy before, about her plays Washer/Dryer and The Future Is Female…  She answered a handful of questions about Esspy in the week leading up to the opening weekend.

Can you talk a little more about what an “SP” is?

Nandita Shenoy: SP stands for “standardized patient.” which is when actors act like patients for medical students in simulated patient visits. Over the past 25 years or so, these simulations have become a part of the curriculum for most medical programs, and students have to do them at regular intervals in their training to learn how to communicate with patients effectively. The actors are called “standardized patients” because they all receive training on each case that gives them very specific details about the symptoms they need to report. That way all the students are receiving the same information, regardless of who the actor is.

Tim Liu and Lipica Shah in the world premiere of Nandita Shenoy’s “Esspy” at NJ Rep. (Photo by Andrea Phox Photography)

Your play details an eight-year relationship between an SP and a doctor. Share a little about your main characters? Who do we meet, and what are they going through — emotionally or professionally or personally — at the top of the play?

Nandita Shenoy: The play follows the trajectory of a medical student, William Chen, from his first year of medical school ’til his final year of residency. During the course of his training, he encounters the same SP over and over, Anu Shilpa, and he is mentored by a tough professor, Dr. Mendoza.

At the beginning of the play, William is awkward and very uncomfortable talking to patients. We watch how he learns to talk to patients through the multiple simulations he does with Anu, who also starts the play as a fairly green SP. For William, the science is interesting, while the communication is a real challenge, and his mentor encourages him to lean on his strengths. But as he progresses through his training he learns about the importance of communication. For me the play examines the intersection of science and art and how that might be more important than is commonly believed.

I have actor friends — like you — who have made money playing patients for doctors-in-training. What was your takeaway as an “esspy” and how did it inform the play?

Nandita Shenoy: Working as an SP definitely informed the play! Acting out these very short scenes for simulations always seemed like great fodder for a play, but also realizing the value of the work was an A-ha! moment for me that I wanted to share. Honestly, being an SP showed me how unique actors are in nurturing their skills to communicate. I also think that I had a few [med] students who really made me wonder if they would be able to develop those skills over the course of their training, and that made me want to explore the question.

At the same time, I was also thinking about representation in theater and really wanting to write a play with all-Asian characters that wasn’t about being Asian. Writing a play set in a medical school felt like a great way to do that!

Tim Liu, Ching Valdes-Aran and Lipica Shah in Nandita Shenoy’s “Esspy.” (Photo by Andrea Phox Photography)

What did you “see” first when conjuring the play — a character? a situation?

Nandita Shenoy: From the beginning, I knew I wanted to share several of the simulations because I thought they were so funny and dramatic. As I reflected on the cases that I knew, I realized how the simulations themselves could offer a journey for the student in terms of emotional growth. One thing in the play that is very unrealistic is the idea that a student would keep having the same SP over and over, but since I was writing a play and not a movie, I decided to explore what would happen if a medical student did encounter the same SP and actually develop a personal relationship with them.

What sort of research went into creating your “esspy” character and her relationship with a doctor? In general when you’re writing plays, do you enjoy the research aspect of a play?

Nandita Shenoy: Since the play is based on my own experiences as an SP as well as those growing up in a medical household with a large number of friends who went to medical school, I didn’t do a ton of research for the play. I did get a Mellon Creative Fellowship in 2018 to work on the play at the University of Washington which gave me a chance to connect to several specialists who deal with some of the medicine portrayed. So I was able to hone a lot of the medical jargon with their help.  But this was not a play that started from research. I definitely “wrote what I know.”

We all have specific and often necessary relationships with doctors and hospitals — good, bad, painful and hopeful. Did you draw on your own memories of encounters with doctors for this?

Nandita Shenoy: Absolutely. As I mentioned, I grew up in a medical family. My father is a radiologist, and my mom is a dentist. All of our family friends during my childhood were doctors. Most of my early encounters with doctors were all people who were friends with my parents. I mean, I happened to see my GP at the time I was experiencing my first romantic break-up in high school, and he actually took the time to talk to me about dealing with my sadness because he had known me for so much of my life!

So it was a rude awakening the first time I went to a doctor in New York and discovered that all doctors don’t necessarily care about you as a person. I think some of that shock influenced me when I started doing SP work. And of course, my experience navigating the medical system when a member of my family was seriously ill also influenced the play a lot.

Lipica Shah plays actress Anu in “Esspy.”

Does the play live in a world of any of your other plays? How is it different from or similar to another title of yours?

Nandita Shenoy: I think it lives in a very familiar world to my other plays in that it’s realistic but a little heightened and that it’s a funny play about a serious topic. There’s also a “me” character, which most of my plays have. But it’s also a quieter play than some of my others. It’s hard for me to compare them!

What’s been the challenge of writing the play?

Nandita Shenoy: Honestly, I wrote the first draft in 2012, and the challenge has been getting someone interested in producing it. What’s funny is that in some ways, the pandemic made the play more relevant than when I wrote it. I think people are slightly more attuned to the challenges of being a doctor now than they were in 2012, and many of the cases have a different resonance today, like the vaccine case and multiple women’s health cases.

Was there a development process through of readings? Where? How did it get to NJ Rep?

Nandita Shenoy: The first reading was in the spring of 2012 at Ma-Yi Theater, where I was a member of the Writers Lab. I had multiple readings including one at Live & In Color and another at Queens College supported by a Kupferberg grant. Then in 2018, I got the Mellon Creative Fellowship in conjunction with Ma-Yi which afforded me the chance to do a longer workshop with the students in the acting program at UW as well as access to medical professionals. After that, though, everything went kind of quiet, partially because other plays of mine were getting more attention.

I worked at NJ Rep as an actor in Adam Szymkowicz’s play Mercy in 2018. So I knew most of the people there. The artistic director SuzAnne Barabas reached out to me about auditioning for something when theaters started to open after the shutdown and asked me if I had written anything that might be interesting for the theater. I was really touched that she saw me both as an actor and a writer, which is not always the case. So I sent this play because I thought it would be a good fit for the space and the audience. She offered me a reading there in the summer or 2022 which went really well. The audience seemed very engaged, and several people talked to me about their own experiences with the medical establishment afterwards. From there, it was a matter of finding a good slot for the play to head into production which is where we are now!

Tim Liu plays med student William Chen.

What does director Peter J. Kuo bring to the process?

Nandita Shenoy: Peter directed the world premiere of my play Washer/Dryer at East West Players in Los Angeles in 2015, and we have always had a very collaborative relationship. EWP introduced us to each other when they were considering the play, and we hit it off right away. Peter likes to share how the first time we worked together on a reading of Washer/Dryer we would take notes in all the same places, and he knew we were a good fit. Working on this play with him has been so much fun. We showed up on the first day of rehearsal wearing the same EWP t-shirt, which I found hilarious! And we still do take some of the exact same notes! But also, I think he brings a great sense of the visual to my work and is great at teasing out the stakes in the play. I’m so wordy and text-based, and he really helps physicalize the action.

Have you worked with any of this team before? Are these actors New Yorkers? Does NJ Rep rehearse in NYC?

Nandita Shenoy: I wrote the role of Dr. Mendoza for Ching Valdes-Aran, whom I have admired for a long time. So it’s very special that she is actually in the production. She is so great at playing the no-nonsense professor, and she is also fantastic with the humor of the play. She gets to play a nurse in one of the scenes, and she always cracks me up.

Lipica Shah is a dear friend of mine whom I have worked with as an actor on many readings and workshops in New York as well as on a production of Madhuri Shekar’s House of Joy at Cal Shakes in 2019. She is someone that I love to have in the room when I am workshopping my plays because she is very attentive to language and objectives. We also have worked together as SPs which made her the ideal person to play Anu.

And Tim Liu is an actor who is new to me but who has brought a lot of depth and warmth to the role of William. We have many colleagues in common, and everyone was so enthusiastic when they heard he was doing my play. So I’m just thrilled to be working with him.

Ching and Lipica are New Yorkers. Tim hails from New Jersey. And Peter currently lives in San Francisco where is the Director of the Conservatory at ACT. We rehearsed at the [NJ Rep] theater and were lucky to have the set ready for us from Day One because of the slot we had in the season. It’s rare that you get to rehearse on the actual set with most of the real props, and with this show it made a difference since so much of the play involves medical equipment that is hard to approximate with stand-ins.

Ching Valdes-Aran plays Dr. Mendoza.

I previously wrote about your plays Washer/Dryer and The Future Is Female… Is there anything you wish to share about the subsequent life of those plays, or do you want to plug anything else you’re working on?  

Nandita Shenoy: Washer/Dryer is currently slated to play in the Bay area later this year — its fifth production. I still hope that The Future Is Female… will get another production in the near future since reproductive rights is so present in the political discourse, and who doesn’t love a reproductive rights comedy? Seriously, I just read about how a lawmaker is trying to introduce a ban on contraception in Michigan where a referendum on reproductive rights passed with an overwhelming majority just months before my play was produced there. So the issue is still very much on the ballot. But as you know, getting the second production can sometimes be harder than the first. So I keep putting it out there!

What have I missed here that you wish to express?

Nandita Shenoy: If you love plays and playwrights, you should definitely read Ife Olujobe’s article “5000” in The Dramatist, the publication the Dramatists Guild.  It’s an eye-opening account of playwright compensation that I think is essential reading for everyone in the theater.