INTERVIEW: Tuberculosis, transcendence join together in ‘T.B. Sheets’ at The Tank

Adam R. Burnett’s new play is an otherworldly look into the world of tuberculosis sanatoriums. Audience members shouldn’t be surprised to see some living saints and a spaceship on the stage of The Tank, where T.B. Sheets runs through Saturday, May 27. This is not your mother’s tuberculosis play.

T.B. Sheets is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the patients transcend to the order of living saints and hop aboard a spaceship to escape their physical illnesses. In many ways, this avant-garde approach to the material is meant as a metaphor and meditation on fragility and identity. The cast features Brady Blevins, Danny Brave, Maybe Burke, Nehassaiu deGannes, Yuki Kawahisa, Daniel Nelson, Colleen O’Neill, Lori Elizabeth Parquet, Tina Shepard and Moira Stone. Burnett and lisa nevada are the directors.

The production comes to The Tank’s Flint & Tinder Series from Buran Theatre. Recently, Burnett talked about the play with Hollywood Soapbox. Here’s what he had to say:

On the origins of T.B. Sheets …

“Well, it was kind of a storm of a lot of different influences that all just hit at the right time. A few years back I had written a show about sort of the American industrial medical complex and about this idea of how we heal and how we get better and what wellness is, and it was a very sort of fractured piece that I wasn’t really done exploring.

“After it was done, about a year later, I was returning to the material, and it sort of set me off in a new direction to build a new piece sort of from the ashes of that piece. And at the same time I was reading the book [The] Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which initiates with a person arriving at a tuberculosis sanatorium and proclaiming that they are well and they do not need healing, and so that’s where this whole narrative for T.B. Sheets began is someone arriving in a space for invalids and proclaiming their wellness. And somehow the piece kind of took off into a much more fantastical realm as I sort of delved into more research about the history of tuberculosis.”

On developing the piece …

“[Historically], you were sort of blessed and you were deemed special to have tuberculosis. It was a disease of desire and a disease of the color red. The blood popping up to the lungs and the way people would turn flush, it was seen as sort of a sensual disease, so I sort of took that. And that was the narrative trope which carried me through the end. … [The play explores] these ‘Ones’ that were separated from society in the sanatorium coming to a place of acceptance of their illness and then transcendence.”

On researching tuberculosis for the play …

“In Europe, a lot of folks went up to mountains, the Alps and cold climates to get the cold air under their lungs, and here in America, they were sending people to New Mexico a lot, Albuquerque in particular. … Putting people out on sleeping decks to sleep there at night and breathe the cold air because they thought that might help. There’s a part in the play that refers to this. They would give packs of cigarettes to patients thinking that the smoke would clear the lungs or rattle out the illness and get it out through that.”

On his hope for the audience takeaway …

“The play is so much about the body and about the sense of radical care and empathy, and I hope that audiences come away with a sense of the multiplicities that live in all bodies and the sense of community. I think especially right now, when communities feel so divided and it’s so easy to ‘other’ others, I really hope that people come out with that sense of what lives within them, what lives within others, and a stranger can so easily become a neighbor. That the thing you are afraid of, the thing that you fear is not as scary as that.”

By John Soltes / Publisher /

T.B. Sheets is currently playing The Tank’s Flint & Tinder Series at The Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd St. in New York City. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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