The show must go on.
I am told this cliché holds special weight for those who have spent significant time working in the theater, but I wouldn’t know. I was never a “theater person.” I had never acted, sung on stage, or produced any sort of production before coming to medical school. I never would have guessed that as an M4 I would find myself as one of the five people in charge of the massive production that is the Smoker.
The Smoker is an annual tradition and an integral part of the fabric of Michigan Medicine. For 103 years, students here have conceived, written, performed, directed, and produced this comedic musical. It is our way of satirizing the life of a medical student, reminding us all that those awkward encounters or difficult days are shared by us all. It is a chance to come together as a community, forget about studying, and share a laugh.
Additionally, the Smoker is how we show our love and gratitude for our educators. Faculty relish the opportunity to be “smoked” and regard it as the highest honor that students can bestow. As an M1, I fondly remember one of our most revered faculty appearing on stage dressed in a green morph suit and rainbow tutu, just days before he would welcome us to the neurology block. The support from the entire Michigan Medicine community (faculty, residents, students) fosters the idea that this place is not merely a hospital, but a family.
I found a home in the Smoker as an M1. I found best friends, faculty mentors, and lifelong memories. I knew I had to keep this tradition going and cultivate this same atmosphere for all. I spent the next two shows doing everything I could behind the scenes to help make the show happen, and as a fourth year I was named a Producer Czar (yes, the leaders of the show are arrogant enough to call themselves “czars”).
As I stood on stage for the final curtain call, I had no clue that in two weeks the University and world would be shut down due to the coronavirus. Everything I had ever hoped to bring to the stage was thrown into flux. For a few months, my fellow czars and I did what everyone else did: hoped things would blow over and we could go back to normal. Quickly that became unrealistic, and we knew we could not safely have an in-person musical. But, the show must go on. We knew that after one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory that we needed to give people a chance to laugh. It was then we decided to make the first ever The Smoker: The Movie.
Making a musical as a medical student with limited theatrical experience is hard enough. Making a feature-length film with no movie making experience in the middle of a global pandemic is insane. Everyone filmed their own individual scenes, sang their individual parts, and danced their dances at home. I learned how to do LEGO stop motion and video editing for a scene in the show. In the end over 1,100 individual video files, 250 audio files, and 350 band tracks were submitted by students (who were still studying, on rotations, interviewing for residency, etc.) and stitched together into a full-length movie. Unlike a normal year when they can see the scenes come together in rehearsal and over Tech Week, the cast had as little insight into what the show would look like as the audience. Yet, they listened to our instructions and trusted our vision for a show–a fairly apt metaphor for medical training, too.
This past Saturday, all of their hard work was realized, and we were finally able to release the 2021 Smoker, titled “Herpules.” I may be biased, but I think Herpules is as good as any other Smoker. Yet, I am proudest that the elements that made me fall in love with the Smoker survived. While the show will be memorable as the first movie version of the Smoker (and hopefully only), it should also be remembered as the year that despite every obstacle, the spirit of the Smoker lived on. Through all the virtual interactions, friendships were made, classes became closer together, faculty were smoked and made accessible to students, and, most importantly, the Smoker family grew. You can’t stop our team.
The show went on. The show will always go on.
The 2021 Smoker, Herpules, is available to watch here. On this website you will also find a virtual program for the show, which contains even more history and insight into what the Smoker is about. Decades of past Smokers are also available to view on the Galens Smoker YouTube page.
Braden Engstrom is a graduating fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. He will be starting his residency in Pediatrics at the University of Chicago this June. He is looking forward to watching the 2022 Smoker, hopefully in person, as a “dead czar.”