An Act of Humanity - Theatre Alums Share a Kidney in the Production of a Lifetime - a guest blog by Sheryl McAlister

  (The below is a copy of a blog posted by Sheryl McAlister, a freelance writer in South Carolina. She is editor of the blog Old Broad & New Trix.

Part 1, Erin’s Story: “Let’s get this Show on the Road”

The first time I saw Erin Thigpen Wilson was March, 2014, in Charleston, SC. She was playing a sadistic human trafficker in PURE Theatre’s production of Russian Transport. She was the matriarch of a group of equally sadistic family members.

She scared the shit out of me.

“Art…,” Edgar Degas said, after all “… is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

Meeting her, mercifully, was altogether different. She’s groovy in an old school, hippy sort of way. Laid back with a been-there, done-that attitude. Funny. Quick wit. Seemingly carefree.

She grew up in community theatre in Columbia, SC, the child of a father who was a community theatre actor and high school drama teacher and a mother who ran the box office of the local theatre out of her living room. She performed in too many plays to count, starting at the age of 5 as “Rabbit #3” in Workshop Theatre’s production of Winnie the Pooh. Long ago, she learned how to play make believe.

Seemingly…. carefree.

Early in the summer of 2013, she nearly died. Her kidneys were destroyed. Doctors still don’t know why.

“I was having trouble breathing, but that’s normal for me,” Wilson, an asthma sufferer, said. “The first doctor told me I had bronchitis and gave me an antibiotic. But a week later, I had this incredible body pain. My bones hurt. I didn’t sleep for days.”

A second opinion led to tests that revealed elevated creatinine levels. As the doctor ran yet another set of tests to verify her assumptions, she told Wilson to decide which hospital she wanted to go to in the meantime. And she told her to decide quickly.

Wilson’s husband Laurens had met her at the doctor’s office. “We just looked at each other and were like ‘WHAT?’ The doctor told us we could go by ambulance or drive ourselves but if we decided to drive ourselves, we had to drive straight there. No stops.”

They called her parents – Sally Boyd & Les Wilson and Jim & Kay Thigpen. And her in-laws, Hank & Sue Wilson.

She spent two days in the ICU and was diagnosed with acute kidney failure. Her only option was dialysis. And just like that… Life, as she knew it, had changed forever.

She started hemodialysis, a rigorous, inflexible process that saves lives but dictates how those lives will be spent. The patient is attached to a machine 12 hours a week and cannot move while undergoing treatment. An alternate solution was available a couple months later, and she jumped at the chance.

Peritoneal dialysis “can be done at home,” she said. “There’s a cath in my abdomen; I call it a bullet hole. It’s where a very long tube goes out of my body and hooks up to a machine about the size of a copying machine.”

The process takes 9 to 10 hours each night. Every single night, she’s hooked up to a machine that pumps toxins out of her body. But Wilson seems to take it all in stride, expressing relief that the lead is long and allows her to move around her house without too much hassle.

“My days are free,” Wilson said, “And I can do what I need to do during the day. I have to schedule the 9 to 10 hours every night, but if I have a late night at rehearsal, I won’t schedule anything early the next morning.”

Late night at rehearsals would be at Pure Theatre where she is a member of the Core Ensemble, and Laurens is Managing Director. They met in March of 1995 in Manhattan when they both bartended for the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.

It was probably love at first sight, but she was married. So they became friends instead. “He introduced himself as Laurens from South Carolina,” Wilson said. “He knew Trustus.”

Trustus is Columbia (SC)’s Trustus Theatre, founded by Wilson’s dad Jim and his wife Kay 30 years ago.

The Wilsons began their life together later that year, and were married in June of 1998. They have moved from New York City to Baltimore to Chicago to Charlotte to Charleston, with occasional moves to Columbia in between. With one exception – Charlotte – every move they made involved “our actual family or a theatre community,” she said.

While the medical brilliance that is dialysis keeps her alive, it is art – the theatre — that has sustained her.

“I have worked harder this past year than I ever have,” she said. “And it has been my saving grace. There was a six month gap where I didn’t do anything, and it was depressing. For the most part, my activity hasn’t diminished.”

Art has long been a vehicle that can tame uncivilized societies, challenge conventional thinking and bring color to the grey. Art represents the heart and soul of a community and its basic humanity.

Art, in this case, literally connected life to life. Kidney to kidney. Generosity to gratitude.

“I needed a transplant,” Wilson said. “I don’t like asking people for help, so it was terrifying for me to think about having to ask. But I put it out there on Facebook.”

The posting said, in essence, she needed a kidney. And a living donor was preferred. She has no siblings. No cousins. Her parents weren’t ideal candidates. To this day, she has no idea how many people were tested or inquired. But one person stepped up.

An actor. From Columbia.

Part 2, Monica’s Story: “The Kidney Thing”

Monica Wyche grew up in Columbia and now lives in New York with her husband, playwright Dean Poynor, and 2-year-old son, Elrod. Wyche is scheduled to donate her left kidney to Wilson during a 4-hour surgery at Charleston’s Medical University of South Carolina next week.

They met each other 25 years ago, but they weren’t really friends. They’re about the same age – Wilson is 47, and Wyche is 44 — but they didn’t go to the same high schools. They are both only children. And both have lots of parents. Both their fathers were involved in the theatre, and they met their respective husbands through theatre work.

They didn’t travel in the same circles. Except for the theatre. And Trustus.

Wyche said she owes a debt of gratitude to Trustus and all it has meant to her life. Wyche, who started acting at Cardinal Newman High School, remembered her first role at Trustus in the 1993 production of Dancing at Lughnasa. She taught drama in Columbia’s Richland District 2 schools for seven years.

If not for Trustus, Wyche said: “I would never have met my husband. Erin’s family is directly responsible for my family.”

Wyche is the only child of Alan Wyche and Ann Beatty. Her parents divorced when she was in the third grade, but she said they’ve remained the best of friends. “They have always been so nice to each other, and it’s made a world of difference.”

Wyche’s bonus parents include her mother’s husband Mike Beatty as well as her dad’s third wife Linda Wyche. Her dad’s second wife, Sharon Tanner, was a huge artistic influence on Wyche. “I still call her my stepmother, too,” she said. “I’m close to all of them.” Her in-laws, Paul and Alice Poynor, live in Irmo, SC, where he serves as pastor at St. Andrews Road Presbyterian Church.

Wyche’s mother did not want her to do the surgery at first. “She made that very clear. She’s never been one to try to influence my decisions, but she let me know how she felt. Several times.

“I found a website where they posted all these stories about people who have donated organs and are getting along fine,” she said of  Rock1Kidney. “Once she started reading those stories, she started to feel better. She’s still nervous, but she doesn’t think I’ll die. Ultimately, she’s very proud.”

The first time Wyche met Wilson was approximately 25 years ago when they were both working on a student film. She remembered it was about the time Robby Benson was making the movie Modern Love in Columbia. Wilson worked on the film and shared some of the inside humor, Wyche recalled. “She was really nice. Even though we had never been friends, we were friendly.”

Their lives from there took them in different directions, but the common ground was always the theatre. Years later when social media allowed connections between people who might not otherwise have done so, they friended each other on Facebook. And their lives intersected again.

Wyche remembered seeing Wilson’s plea for help and recalled the details of their lives that were so very similar — particularly their theatre experiences. “She just put it out there, and I thought ‘I’d want someone to do that for me.’

“Of course I would give her a kidney,” she continued. “I have two, and I only need one.”

It’s an act of heroism she doesn’t seem to recognize. An act of generosity so selfless most people can’t understand it — giving a body part to a virtual stranger. Plenty of people are organ donors. It’s easy to check the box on the driver’s license; we’ll be dead when our organs are donated. But Wyche doesn’t see herself as anyone’s hero. She has, understandably, wondered about her own decision. But she never contemplated backing out.

Wyche said she has often wondered if all their similarities had anything to do with her steadfast commitment to Wilson and this procedure.

“The tests and the process went really fast. And it never occurred to me to back out. But at one point,” she said with a giggle, “I was looking over my shoulder like “So where are your best friends? Ok. Anyone? Anyone?

“I mean, once this is over I won’t be able to pick up my 2-year-old for 6 weeks. But she could die without it. Of course, I’m going to give her a kidney.”

A show at Trustus and a role in The House of Blue Leaves brought Wyche back to South Carolina from New York for two days of testing which finalized her physical and mental fitness for such an extraordinary experience. The date for the surgery was random. “It was either November 12th or the day before Thanksgiving,” she said. “I picked November 12th.”

Her husband, Poynor, has been “incredibly supportive.” They met, not surprisingly, when they collaborated on a theatre project. They didn’t date at the time; Poynor was married but had separated from his wife. Wyche mused she’d always wanted to marry “someone like Dean Poynor.” Funny how things work out.

The couple resides on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Poynor is an accomplished playwright, and Wyche calls herself a stay-at-home mom. “My work has taken a backseat to being a mom,” she said without a hint of regret. Wyche said the pace of film and television the past couple years has allowed her to continue working and enjoy quality time with her son. “I haven’t pursued work as fervently as I did before. Now that he’s (Elrod) getting a little older… and after the kidney thing…. I’ll get back into it.

“I audition more than I work,” she laughed. “But I could definitely try harder to get in the room.”

Fans of the Law & Order series Law & Order: SVU would have seen Wyche early this year in an episode titled “Jersey Breakdown,” when she played a hard-ass warden of a juvenile detention center.

Wyche was spending a recent Saturday morning moving around her neighborhood anonymously having a mani-pedi and a casual coffee and croissant – “Oooh, one with cheese,” she told the guy working the counter. She was making preparations to return to Charleston where she will remain until the day after Thanksgiving.

Doing all the normal things one does before giving away a body part, I suppose.

She doesn’t allow herself much time for reflection. For what it all means to her, her family and to Wilson’s. “Maybe one day I’ll really think about it,” she said. “But, right now, I won’t let myself be still with it.”

Which explained her discomfort at a recent benefit at Trustus where both Wilson and Wyche were the center of attention. One had to suspect it was the only time the two women have felt uncomfortable onstage.

In mid-October, an all-star cast of performers turned out for a one-time only Torch Cabaret on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus . And the production was a love fest.

The artists performed old familiar numbers as well as some kidney and organ-donor inspired new ones. The evening offered equal amounts of laughter and seriousness. Columbia performer Steven Thompson had some memorable one-liners in the song Masochism Tango. “This shit’s gonna hurt,” he shouted above the audience’s raucous laughter.

Columbia theatre veteran Paul Kaufmann, the evening’s moderator, said privacy policies prevented the two patients’ friends and families from keeping up with the other during surgery. “I can’t believe it,” he said referring to HIPAA rules about patient privacy. “I mean they’re sharing a fucking kidney but they can’t share surgery updates.”

Again, the laughter. The audience, at times, had to jolt itself back into the life and death reality that was the evening’s theme. But who knew organ donation and health care could be so much fun. Yeah, right.

There were songs of reflection and about the “women we are now and the girls we were then.” When Wilson and Wyche took the stage briefly to take a bow, Wilson said: “There are certain people who do things like this and don’t ask. It’s second nature. Luckily, there was a person willing to do that for me.”

As the two embraced on-stage, Wyche responded: “My life is totally fucking different.” To which Wilson deadpanned: “You’re welcome.”

They brought the house down.

As the countdown to surgery begins, both women have taken nothing for granted and have kept relentlessly optimistic attitudes.

Wilson has permitted herself quiet moments of introspection. She recalled the first one which came after she had been in the hospital about a week during the initial period of diagnosis. Her husband had slept every night in a hospital chair, and she insisted he go home and get a good night’s sleep.

“Mom stayed with me in the hospital,” Wilson said of Boyd. “It was about 3 a.m, and Mom and I had some illuminating conversations about life. The thing that struck me was that I didn’t want to die. That the purpose for me and my life was to love and be loved. I feel like I do that.

“And I knew that if I did die, the most important thing I realized was very freeing. It took a lot of the burden off of having to prove anything. It’s made a big difference for me as a human being. This gift has brought me comfort that whatever happens, I did it right.”

Wilson’s plans for the future have her focused on her post-surgery timetable at PURE. She’s directing Glengarry Glen Ross, which opens January 23, 2015. “Since I’m directing, I can just sit in a chair with a riding crop,” she said, a hint of that Russian Transport character creeping back in.

She’s planning to perform in Outside Mullingar at PURE in March, 2015. In the spring of 2015, she will play “Brooke Wyeth” in Other Desert Cities, on the Thigpen Main Stage at Trustus. Her uncle, Ron, will play her father; her stepmother Kay will play her aunt. The show will be directed by her dad.

It will be a homecoming, no doubt, with plenty of open arms. When she said “let’s get this show on the road,” it wasn’t altogether clear whether she was referring to the surgery or the theatre. Either way, she calls herself fortunate. “I know how lucky I am to have been born who I am,” she said. “I have a family who loves me. I’m fairly intelligent, have a husband and, thank God, good insurance.”

Wyche is also making plans once the recovery period has passed. “I’m going to cut my hair, and go through a re-branding.” She sounded almost excited. She will celebrate her 45th birthday November 21st in Charleston. It will, no doubt, be one to remember.

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said when he signed into existence the National Endowment for the Arts. “For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.”

For a group of people in South Carolina, a dedication to the performing arts has strengthened a community, launched careers, provided food for the soul and fueled passion. The passion motivated an actor to summon the courage to ask for help. It moved another actor to provide an extraordinary gift. And it challenged a community to respond. Ultimately, what that passion may have done, inadvertently, is laid the foundation that saved a woman’s life.

Break a leg.

Copyright 2014 Sheryl McAlister.

God, Gays, and Notre Dame - a guest blog by Sheryl McAlister

Thomas said to himself: “I always wished I could be loved like that. Cosmically. Painfully, to excess. Until the day he died, (W.H.) Auden struggled to love himself. Struggled to reconcile his love of men with his devotion to God. Perhaps the only time the two ever met in harmony were in his poems.

“Maybe the act of writing was like – like an act of blood-letting. What a way to live, your heart pressed like a flaking flower between the pages, waiting for someone to translate its beats, smile down at it instead of frown, cry for it instead of against it. What a sad existence; but what exquisite passion…”

(From “Beneath My Skin,” By Zachary Wendeln.)


Opening night for “Beneath My Skin,” written by young playwright Zachary Wendeln, is October 2, 2014, in South Bend, Indiana. Thomas is the leading character. Wendeln’s work was selected as the premiere show in the University of Notre Dame’s Fall Theatre Festival, as part of its main stage theatre series. An original student production, “Beneath My Skin” explores themes of love, loss, pain, secrecy and shame through 42 years of a man’s life as he comes to terms with his own sexuality.

The work is particularly poignant in that the story is told through the eyes of both the troubled Thomas as well as Thomas’ daughter, who finds her father’s journals and seeks to understand his pain. The thematic exploration suggests a maturity beyond Wendeln’s 21 years.

San Francisco and New York City provide the backdrop for the story which spans more than two decades and focuses on the complex, secret lives of several men during critical periods of the gay revolution. Even the music – Billie Holiday to Joan Jett — takes you back.

“The ‘60s and the ‘80s were two turning points of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) history,” Wendeln says, referring to both the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the AIDS crisis, which began in the early ‘80s. “I wanted to look at the attitudes and how they’ve evolved and shifted,” he says. “And how they’ve influenced where we are today as a society.”

Some have called the gay rights movement the last frontier of the civil rights movement. Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen. Today’s groundswell of support for marriage equality across the country represents yet another significant push toward full equality in this country.

This young man from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, set out on a journey of his own when he started this work. And what he found, he says, as he “researched the tumultuous timeline in LGBT history during the ‘60s, ‘80s and ‘90s, was a lot more hope than I expected to find.”

Oh, the idealism of youth. Zach’s statement seemed to be the one moment where any hint of naiveté showed itself. Yes, there were those who came before, who were young once and full of passion and promise. And they fought the good fight until the next generation took its turn.

“I expected to find that queer culture and queer society wouldn’t have been as alive back then,” Wendeln says. “What I found was that people were trying to get their voices heard. And I wanted to take a look at the juxtaposition between the mainstream idea of being gay versus what it meant to be gay back then.”

Wendeln must have been born an old soul, fascinated by the way things used to be. Not because he wanted to go back there but because he had a deep appreciation for what came before him. When I met him in 2008, he was 16 years old. Or 15, I can’t remember exactly. I was crazy about him from the start.

I remember he was writing a screenplay on a 1926 Underwood typewriter. “I wrote all my assignments on that typewriter,” he says.

He had an easy way about him. Smart. Happy. Well-adjusted. The only son of parents who were fortunate enough to be able to introduce him to incredible life experiences and smart enough to ensure he earned them. Knowing his folks, I’m pretty sure he grew up in a house that treated intelligence and laughter equally.

“My parents didn’t spoil me,” he says by phone from South Bend. “I had to work hard. They taught me not to take gifts for granted, and not to be boastful.”

There is a level of self-awareness about him that surely must set him apart from his peers. Most certainly, from his peer group. For instance, his high school senior essay “The Inhumanism of Robinson Jeffers” was selected by the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation for its permanent research archive. He was writing about Jeffers’ observations of self-centeredness and indifference, and he was doing so from the perspective of a tech-savvy, gadget-happy Generation Y-er.

Not the sort of kid to want or to refurbish an 88-year-old manual typewriter, much less to use one.

One has to wonder where the characteristics of his “Beneath My Skin” characters come from. Thomas seems a lot like Wendeln. A good guy. A good friend. A poetry lover. Loyal. Kind. Serious.

Every two years, the Notre Dame Theatre Department selects one or two original student plays. The students, who have studied under Anne Garcia-Romero, submit one-act plays for consideration. Wendeln’s “Beneath My Skin,” is “a very special play,” says Garcia-Romero, Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, TV and Theatre at Notre Dame. “It’s remarkably honest. I’ve seen its development from the first scene (as an assignment in her class) to the final presentation.”

A committee of three selected the piece. “We were all struck by how well-crafted it was,” she says. “It was poetic and moving. And it addressed a very important issue of our time. It was completely compelling.”

A line in the University of Notre Dame’s mission statement reads: “…God’s grace prompts human activity to assist the world in creating justice grounded in love.”

In a world constantly evolving and challenging those of us in it to make choices that could set or alter our life’s path, the selection of “Beneath My Skin” — as well as another gay-themed play “Out of Orbit” — as student productions is a courageous move. The spotlight will shine on this bastion of Catholicism. And it will be judged – rightly or wrongly. But this professor and her colleagues seek to ensure a safe zone for their students to create. And they do not waver in that commitment.

“Our departments and our Dean are all advocates for academic freedom,” Garcia-Romero continues. “These plays fall into that with themes of equality and discrimination. With struggles of coming out and who you love.

“Our department is a safe place for students to work and learn,” she says. “We protect them – above and beyond the themes of the plays. They can develop in a safe space.”

Garcia-Romero touts the University for sanctioning Prism ND , the school’s first official organization for LGBTQ students and their allies. “This is a major step,” she says. “People have been working for decades to make this happen.”

So when the curtain rises for the first time on “Beneath My Skin” this gifted young playwright won’t be concerned with public policy or social justice. He’s simply earned the right to be there … and learn.

“For a playwright, the finished product is more like a workshop production,” Wendeln says, explaining the difference between a full production and one that allows the writer to evolve with the process. “This is a learning process,” he says. “There will be minimal costumes. I will get to play a hand in auditions and casting.

“I will consult with the Director and Producer,” he continues. “The process allows the writer to write and edit new material with the feedback we receive. (The performance) is not about getting to the end. The hope is that you learn the full process.”

The play opens Thursday, October 2, and runs through Sunday October 12. The double billing includes “Out of Orbit.” For more information, check out

Wendeln is a senior this year with a double major in English & Film, Theatre and Television. He has made Dean’s List for the Irish all five terms. He is active in campus theatre and opera groups and will direct the musical “Into the Woods,” as well as another serious play “Loyal Daughters and Sons,” vignettes regarding sexual abuse.

“Zach is a remarkably talented artist with wonderful potential in the creative arts,” Garcia-Romero says.

Wendeln grew up near Cleveland, a town known lately for welcoming LeBron James home and recruiting Johnny Manziel. Neither fact is significant to this young man. In all likelihood, after college, he will never go back there. Giving a grateful nod to the local playhouse in Aurora, Ohio, his post-graduation days will likely take him to Chicago or across the pond to London’s West End.

He spent last fall in the UK, and it is there that he feels the most at home. “Ideally, that’s where I want to end up,” he says. “There are more opportunities – the indie theatre scene for young and upcoming artists. There’s just something I love about London.”

On track to graduate in the spring of 2015, his resume reads like a theatre veteran’s and includes young writer’s awards from the University of Iowa and talent search programs from Northwestern. The list of accolades is long. The future is bright.

“Theatre is what I want to do with my life,” he says. “For a while, I was on a different track, but after my experience in London, I want to be in the theatre – writing, directing and acting.”

His game plan is anyone’s guess, but he says he’s burned out academically. “I don’t have a plan after graduation, and it’s terrifying,” he says. “For the first time I haven’t known what’s next. There was middle school, then high school and then university. This is the first time it’s felt like a transition in my life.”

Whether he ends up in Chicago, London or New York’s Broadway … I’d bet the farm we’ve not heard the last of him.

Copyright 2014 Sheryl McAlister - reprinted from Old Broad, New Trix by Sheryl McAlister

Sheryl McAlister is a writer and PR consultant. She was Senior Vice President and Corporate Public Relations Executive for Bank of America. And she is a former sports writer and editor.  She writes personal essays for her blog Old Broad & New Trix: Musings of a 50-something in a digital world.

Sheryl McAlister