Feb 1, 2023

Faces of Temerty Medicine: Olivia Rennie and Jonathan Zhao

Dancers rehearse in the Naylor Student Commons at Temerty Medicine
Members of the Daffydil cast rehearse in the C. David Naylor Student Commons in the Medical Sciences Building.

Daffydil will return to the stage at Hart House from February 23rd to 25th, for the first time since 2020.

The show is written, directed and performed entirely by medical students, and is one of the University of Toronto’s oldest traditions, dating back more than 110 years.

In that time, Daffydil has raised over $700,000 for the Canadian Cancer Society.

After two years of online performances, writer Erin Howe caught up with the co-producers of this year’s musical — Olivia Rennie and Jonathan Zhao to find out what viewers can expect from this year’s program.

Tell me a bit about yourselves.

Portrait of Autumn Rennie
Autumn Rennie

Rennie: My name’s Olivia, but I often go by my preferred name, Autumn. I’m a second-year MD/PhD student and in addition to being co-producer of this year’s show, I’m also the playwright and director. My heart and soul lie in the arts and the healing that can come through them.

I originally completed my undergraduate degree in neuroscience here at U of T and later returned to study theatre, literature and film before medical school. It’s incredible to watch one of my pieces brought to life by such an incredible team.

Zhao: I’m a second-year MD student and Daffydil co-producer, which really means I am Autumn’s personal assistant. I choreographed a few of the dances and play Levi Krause in this year’s show. Last year, I played Roy in Daffydil: Viral Vengeance. Though I don’t have a background in musical theatre, I’m learning a lot from my incredible Daffydil pals.

How long have you had the ‘theatre bug’?

Rennie: Theatre has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. While studying neuroscience, I put my artistic involvement on pause. The decision to return to U of T to study theatre before medical school was life-changing — I discovered a layer of the human condition that’s served me well in medicine. I’m excited to begin the PhD portion of my studies next year in the medical humanities, which will focus on the representation of disability in theatre and film. So, I’ll carry the ‘theatre bug’ through my career as a clinician-artist!

Portrait of Jonathan Zhao
Jonathan Zhao

Zhao: I’ve never actually seen a live musical, but I love movies inspired by them like Les Misérables and Mamma Mia. This started when my parents forced me to watch The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady with them when I was in elementary school. Back then, I could barely speak English and had no idea what was going on, but I enjoyed the music. Now, they're two of my favourite movies. I’ve had the bug ever since.

What drew your interest to being part of Daffydil?

Rennie: I remember receiving a welcome call from a medical student, a few days after I received my acceptance. One of the caller’s close friends had been part of Daffydil that year, so when I mentioned being heavily into theatre, we had a great discussion about it. I knew even before the first day of classes I wanted to take part! Last year, I was assistant director for the show. Being part of Daffydil is a one-of-a-kind experience; we call ourselves the ‘Daffamily.’

Zhao: When I started school at Temerty Medicine, I received an email with a YouTube link to Daffydil 2021. I had so much fun watching it that I went back and watched Daffydil 2020 and Daffydil 2019. The students looked like they were having so much fun. That, my love for singing and interest in making new friends motivated me to audition this year. Today, I am so grateful to be part of this community because I always laugh so much at our rehearsals.

What’s this year’s show about?

Rennie: Without giving too much away, this year’s show can be best described as Phantom of the Opera meets Les Misérables.

Ultimately, Daffydil 2023: Queen of Hearts is a story of doing what is right, fighting for love and learning to let go.

Beyond that, you’ll have to come to the show to find out!

Zhao: If I were to summarize the plot in one sentence, I’d say it is the story of Mulan, except she goes to Temerty Medicine instead of joining the army and she falls in love with a Phantom of the Opera-like character. I hope you can imagine what kind of music we have in store for our audience.

Where did the inspiration for Queen of Hearts come from?

Rennie: The inspiration for Queen of Hearts is two-fold. It was written in memory of a dear friend.

The story was also inspired by the socioeconomic disparities that shape access to healthcare in Toronto and across the country. It’s a reminder that we, as young physicians, can have an impact at the individual and collective level.

It’s been a few years since Daffydil was performed live at Hart House. How does it feel to be part of the revival?

Rennie: Amazing —beyond words! The pandemic has been an enormous challenge for theatre across the globe. We had to completely rethink one of the core aspects of the performing arts — the connection that can only come through people sharing the same physical space.

With regard to Daffy, this meant getting creative with virtual theatre and film, which are entirely different processes from a live show.

Being part of the revival of this 112-year tradition is exciting and challenging. We’re building the momentum COVID stole, including raising awareness again within the U of T community.

Zhao: It will also be exciting to perform live for our friends and family.

How does it feel to continue the Daffydil tradition?

Rennie: Among the picture on the walls of the Medical Sciences Building’s C. David Naylor Student Commons is a large black and white photo of a distant generation of the Daffamily. I pass that image nearly every day and can’t help but feel reverence at the chance to be part of Daffy.

At its core, medicine is about stories of being human. We’re privileged as future physicians to be part of each of our patient’s stories. Theatre is a powerful means of storytelling.

Daffydil is a tradition of rethinking how we share stories, create art and form lifelong bonds with our classmates. I’m proud to be part of this lineage and can’t wait to see what Temerty Medicine students create in the future.

Zhao: It’s truly special to be part of something with such a rich history.

Part of Daffydil’s magic is that it’s something people bond over instantaneously. I’ve met Daffy alumni from shows between two and 20 years ago. Whenever I meet a Daffy alumnus, the moment we learn about this shared experience, there’s a connection that requires no explanation.

It’s a true privilege to be a part of Daffydil. It will certainly be a core experience in my medical school journey.