When the ordinary person lands in a hospital bed, he is aware of the staff bustling about giving shots and medications. Most of us take it for granted that someone will appear in the middle of the night when we ring the buzzer by our bed. In the morning, we expect a different nurse to wake us from our drugged slumber, take our vital sings and give us a wash. For the most part these men and women are cheerful, professional and caring. They are anxious to hear our complaints about a restless night, a muscle ache or a twinge in the wrong place and they always do something to help.

But there is a lot more to the nurse’s job, than the care they give us. There is the clean-up, the paper work, the emotional strain, the never-ending pressure of life and death decisions not to mention the lack of any time to ponder on what is happening and what it all means. That is why Alison Whittaker, a nurse who works in the neurology unit at one of San Francisco’s better hospitals decided it was time to let people know just what a day in her life was really like.

Four years ago, she began work on a one woman show that dramatized the unbelievable pressures and unending demands that propel the medical staff in a hospital through each shift. She named her show Vital Signs and when she performed it as part of the Marsh Rising Series at San Francisco’s Marsh Theater June 7th, every nurse in that audience gave her a standing ovation. Her day was theirs and it needed to be pictured without sugar coating.

“This show is important to me because it is my personal story of being a nurse,” she said. “Writing it has been a good creative and emotional outlet for my job. Before I took on this project, I was not a writer, editor, performer, or actress, so I had to learn all these skills as I worked on this piece. I think I was especially lucky to work with director David Ford at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco because he helped me overcome many of my doubts about ever being able to do this. It has been quite a process for me both intellectually and psychologically.”

Her 60 minute narrative is peppered with vignettes of Whittaker’s fellow nurses and her patients, the people she encourages, supports and medicates every day. “The drama of life in the hospital — among, coworkers, patients and family members — spans the full spectrum of emotions from sadness, joy, fear, and anger,” she said. “There is a huge amount of suffering in the hospital. There are patients receiving devastating diagnoses, having surgery, recovering from surgery, enduring painful, uncomfortable treatments, living in an environment where they are not in control. It can be very scary. The stories that the patients tell me about their lives can be devastating.”

But Whittaker transforms the pressures, the disappointments, the tension and the rewards of her every day into a revealing drama portraying all the lives that intertwine in the space of an eight hour shift. “I don’t feel that the story of the nurse has been fully and accurately told by the media,” she said. “I wanted to give my audience an experience of what it is like to be a nurse, with all the socio-economic groups and diversity that we have to deal with in patients as well as staff. Especially in San Francisco, there are so many nationalities and ethnicities that I work with, Filipinos, Chinese, Latina, African Americans, Africans, Arabs, Caucasians, and many more. Truly, the hospital is a microcosm of the world.”

Whittaker sweeps her audience into the roller coaster of emotions she rides each day but she doesn’t paint a stark, thankless picture of overworked human beings never able to finish any task before they must rush to tackle another. Instead, she shows us the rewards these dedicated men and women experience from helping others hold on to the all too often tenuous thread of their lives. She shows her audience that as a human being, she learns something new from every encounter and every procedure she has done. “I think at the end of my show I do come to terms with how I can help patients in the hospital,” she said. “Maybe the most important aspect for me, I discovered, is simply being human, accepting my patients for who they are and helping them through a difficult time.”

SOLO SUNDAYS, StageWerx Theater (San Francisco)

“Bears the authority of someone who works on the front lines in the Neurology unit at one of San Francisco’s better hospitals and has survived to tell the tale.”  — Bruce Pachtman


“Way to go, Alison! As a nurse I could physically feel the exhaustion, pressure, and the sense of duty while caring for my patients. I would watch your show again and again. Two thumbs up.” -- Maria Rivera, RN

“A surgical strike to the funny bone. Penetrating, probing, and as revelatory as an MRI.” -- Jane Veit, RN


VITAL SIGNS: A Top 5 Recommended Show by the Fresno Bee critics!

Mike Oz, The Fresno Bee:   “The first three shows I saw at this year's Rogue Festival came from what's probably my favorite genre -- the autobiographical one-person show. [Two  of these shows] were both good, but it's Alison Whittaker's "Vital Signs" that stood out to me. 

In "Vital Signs," Whittaker tackles life in the nursing profession with a series of stories that are funny, heartbreaking, frustrating, frightening and plain ol' interesting. "It's not like 'E.R.' or 'Scrubs,' " she warns early on. And it's not -- but it is enjoyable and heartfelt.

Whittaker has an easy way about her, a comfort and charm on stage that's probably not all the different than what a nurse needs to make a patient feel at ease. For instance, she starts the show with a series of statements about how people are trained to obey nurses. If I asked you to take off your pants and show me your genitals, she says, you wouldn't argue with me.

Her tales include under-appreciation (buckets of KFC for nurses week?!), stressful patients (who call her the C-word) and the relationships between the nurses (those long shifts give her lots of fodder). But the main thread revolves around the relationship she builds with an at-first difficult patient.

A few people at the Saturday show that I saw loved "Vital Signs" enough to jump to their feet and give Whittaker a standing ovation. I won't go that far. It's good and worth seeing if you enjoy these types of shows. And if you're in the medical profession, I'd imagine "Vital Signs" is a must-see.


A hilarious, touching roller coaster ride of multiple characters and situations. Funny, irreverent, and full of surprises. Alison is a talented mimic, vividly bringing to life multiple characters in multiple crazy, heart-breaking, heart-warming real-life situations on the neurology unit of a major San Francisco hospital. Plus multiple orgasms!! I laughed and cried. DON’T MISS IT!”

“A wonderful performance, Alison! I’m still thinking about your Leticia character. You played her so well — her voice, her language, her expressions. While working at a large county hospital I encountered many Leticias over the years and I found it almost eerie how you transformed yourself into the essence of their very memorable personalities. Very poignant and very impressive!”

“I’ve seen this show several times in the last year and it gets better every time. I remember thinking it was exciting watching Alison romp through her day at the hospital and how funny and it was seeing the different characters she works with. Then it hits you, I could end up there. Being a nurse takes humor and compassion and Alison show us that better than anyone I know. Go see this show you’ll never look at a nurse the same way again.”

“A wonderfully entertaining and terrifically insightful view from the inside. If you’ve ever worked, visited or been incarcerated in a hospital, you’ll recognize her delightful portraits of the sometimes crazy patients and crazed staff, but see them through fresh eyes. Alison opens the door to the mysterious (to a non-professional) goings-on with humor and compassion. Hysterical and deeply moving in turn, imparting a new perspective.”

“One-person Fringe shows can be hit or miss.  This is definitely a hit.  Alison starts by cleverly “breaking the fourth wall”, and then gives a very believable glimpse of a nurse’s life, with the aid of quite convincing impersonations...”

“Everyone needs to see this show. It’s not just for nurses. Alison is a super actress!”

“What great entertainment and information. I’m thinking nurses are severely under-paid and over-worked. Alison is a wonderful performer!”

“I have seen Vital Signs in SF and Boulder and it still moves me to tears. Described as a black comedy, it’s actually incredibly profound as well as shockingly funny. Alison is compassionate and authentic–a combination that is hard to beat. She depicts the humanity of nurses who actually do care, and struggle with the incredible strain of caring so much. I’m thinking more about the themes of the show than the performance, because the characters and writing and delivery are so flawless. They act as a conduit to the people she portrays and their struggles to survive, as patients and nurses. At the same time, I’m laughing throughout. Genius!”

“A funny & touching look at a day in the life of a nurse.”

“Oh, wow!  This is the best show I’ve seen at the fringe this year: funny, moving, and coherent. See this one.”

“This was an impressive show. One person, no props, 1 hour... She tells heartwarming stories of healthcare- some comedy some tragedy.”

Alison portrays people as they are and it’s so real. She made me laugh so hard I forgot how good it feels. She is brilliant. You should not miss this show.”

“Alison does an extraordinary depiction of life on the front of nursing and caregiving within a hospital setting. Alison is successful in bringing her audience into the rooms, lives, and heart, of the patients, their families, and the caregivers. Both hilarious and poignant, not something to be missed.”

“Loved it!!”

“Yup, this is a great show. Funny, but also poignant and thought-provoking.”

Lauren Cross review at http://boulderfringereviews.blogspot.com/


Wayne Roadie Says:
If you miss a single Fringe show, don’t let it be this one! Alison, invites us along for the ride through a twelve hour shift as seen through the eyes of a real live nurse. The narrative is concisely presented while Alison seamlessly transforms herself into each and every person she encounters along the way. It’s a tantalizing concoction of comedy, tragedy, and bowel movements.  Her set consists of a metal chair, and a water bottle, but I swear to you, I truly SAW the devastated room where a horde of medical staffers desperately endeavored to resuscitate the patient I had disliked, mocked, pitied, sympathized with, and cared for.  You don’t need to know what “atrophy” is, or what “alert and oriented times one” means. All you need to know is that sometimes, the best medicine… is a hug.”

John Paul Karliak Says:
Anything but another episode of “Grey’s Anatomy.” A wonderful look into several shifts of the real day-to-day of an RN. Fun and interesting!”

Gene Gore Says:
Your characters are wonderfully varied and concisely separate. There’s never any doubt who’s who.
Being a nurse, I can fully appreciate the many sides of your experience presented with such biting humor as well as deep poignancy. Your ending is magnificent- real, touching and gripping. I cried.  What fun!”

Peggy Says:
I wouldn’t label it as gross or shocking, I would definitely call it heart-warming and intelligent, and also very thought provoking. I believe that good caring nurses like Alison are actually the most important people in our health care system. Most touching moment for me was when Leticia needed a hug more than she needed morphine….. yes.”

Angela Says:
Finally got to catch VItal Sign s— a highly entertaining and satisfying show. The cast of characters Allison paints are endearing and hysterical and Alison is so sweet you can’t help but hope if you are ever in the hospital- she is at your side making you laugh and smile.”

Lisa Hauck-Loy Says:
If you don’t already know Alison, seeing Vital Signs will make you fall in love with her and wish you’re lucky enough to have her as your nurse someday. She is irresistibly, irreverently funny yet respectful and compassionate as she portrays the characters, including herself, in this real life dramedy of the neuro unit. Belly laughs and tears are therapeutic!”

Mimi Lee Says:
Whether you are in the medical field or not, you will enjoy this hilarious show. Alison had me in stitches. My husband and I went with a couple whose husband enjoyed the show even though he was not in the medical field. If you just want to sit back and relax and laugh, this is for you. Alison is a wonderful and natural speaker and she just delivers her material in a smooth way that she just transitions from one subject to another . The audience laughed a lot and you will not be disappointed.”

Kate H Says:
A genuinely touching portrayal of the day in the life of a nurse. Working in the trenches of an urban hospital is not easy–and Alison manages to tell you her story with humor and grace. You’ll love it! I sure did!”

Kathie H. Says:
You will roar with laughter (or roll over if that is your style) at Whittaker’s Vital Signs, while at the same time appreciating as never before–unless you are a floor nurse–the impossible challenges that hospital nurses face and the relentless emotional and physical energy they employ to face them.

William G. Says:
Vital Signs is a one woman Tour de Force! Alison has an amazing way of seamlessly weaving her stories together. She takes the audience on a journey that is filled with humor and is also poignant. She not only captures the immediacy of life as a Floor Nurse but she also portrays the patient’s with love and humor that will keep you laughing and crying. I would highly recommend this show to everyone.”

Lisa H Says:
Alison’s show is fantastic! It has all emotions wrapped up in the day in the life of a floor nurse. It is touching, funny, scary and above all true! Alison takes her work seriously and really shows all the sides of her patients, coworkers and her own experience in nursing. This show is QUALITY! I laughed and cried and cant wait to see it again.”

Lizzy Hersey Says:
A MUST FOR ALL NURSES!!!…and everyone else as well. Alison’s characters come to life, sticking with you long after you’ve seen the show. Her perspective is insightful, poignant, hilarious and realistic. I laugh every time I think about it, and plan to see it again..( my 4th time.)”


"... a solo show combining humor, heartbreak and plenty of graphic details... hits gold"
- Robert Hurwitt, SF Chronicle

"Funny 'Vital Signs' gets to nitty-gritty of nursing."   
Read review - SF Examiner

"... filled with empathy and humor."
Read review - SF Theater Blog

“frank and funny...”                                                  (CLICK LINKS FOR DETAILS)

Read article in SF Chronicle pink section.

Watch an excerpt of Alison's performance here

Watch Alison's interview with KRON4's Henry Tenenbaum!

Read article in the Marin Independent Journal

Read article in SF Weekly Blog

Read article by nursing author Suzanne Gordon in Beyond Chron

"...funny, heartbreaking, frustrating, frightening and plain ol' interesting...a must-see."

Read review - - Mike Oz, Fresno Bee

“Alison is a gifted writer and performer... painfully funny and profound." - Ann Randolph, solo performer   

"A surgical strike to the funny bone. Penetrating, probing, and as revelatory as an MRI." - Jane Veit, RN

"...masterful parody, amazing humor, and unusual sensitivity and compassion. She humanizes a world that is often perceived as sterile and impersonal. Her work will be a revelation to many and a thoroughly entertaining experience for all." - Jeff Anderson, M.D.

NEWS:  Review just updated, expanded and republished in National Nurse Magazine April/May 2012 issue.      (CLICK to read)