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May 2, 2013 Volume 34, No. 29

Interactive Theatre Troupe helps improve communication between doctor and patient

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OPENING A DIALOGUE Actors in the Interactive Theatre Troupe performed a sketch from Dialogues About Breast Cancer at Mizzou Advantage Day April 30. From left, Mel George, professor emeritus in mathematics, plays the doctor telling Donna, played by Sally Foster, retired learning resource specialist at the MU Learning Center, that she has cancer. Kelsey Kennedy, BA, BJ '12, plays Becky, Donna's niece. Photo by Rachel Coward.


Troupe received Mizzou Advantage grant in early 2013

In fall 2005, Heather Carver was preparing to leave her MU office for a meeting when she got a phone call that changed her life. Her doctor told her she had breast cancer. 

“I like my drama on the stage,” said Carver, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the theater department. “I don’t like it in my life.”

As Carver worked through her own diagnosis, treatment and survivorship (today she is cancer-free), she began to notice patterns in the stories told by breast cancer patients about how they were treated by the medical community. 

She developed one-woman shows about her experiences and is now the scriptwriter for the MU Interactive Theatre Troupe’s Dialogues About Breast Cancer, a set of three sketches that deal with doctor–patient communication about breast cancer. 

Each interactive performance includes three five-minute plays with actors performing various roles, including doctor and patient. There is also an opportunity for the audience, usually health care professionals, to ask questions of the actors, who remain in character. Finally, there is an interactive portion where audience members come on stage to act out how they might handle the situation. 

“The doctors in these stories manage to offend pretty much everybody because they seem to not be aware of the patient’s sensitivities or vulnerabilities,” said Suzanne Burgoyne, troupe director. “[The doctors] each have their own reasons for behaving the way they do. The Q-and-A session is where you find out why people do and say what they do and say.”

Carver wrote the scripts based on interviews with doctors, nurses, caregivers and breast cancer survivors. Her goal is to encourage health professionals to show more compassion and empathy toward patients. 

“Charlie Brown shows used to crack me up. The kids talked, but the grown-ups sounded like, ‘Wa Wa Wa, Wa, Wa Wa Wa, Wa,’ ” Carver said. “I wanted to get that in the scripts. Once you tell someone they have cancer, whatever you say after that is a blur. But the way in which you say it can make an impact for a long time.” 

Dr. James Campbell, a professor in the family and community medicine department, said the School of Medicine is always looking for ways of helping students understand the doctor–patient relationship. 

“It’s a form of transformational learning,” Campbell said. “You see something that’s a puzzle or a problem, then the audience works to try to solve it. For example, the doctor seems harsh and uncaring. How can we make this a better situation?”

Campbell, Burgoyne and Carver secured a Komen Foundation grant in 2011 to research and pilot the three scripts. The troupe gave 12 performances, starting with medical school students and expanding to nursing and social work students, breast cancer survivors and family members in the community. 

“Our network is expanding,” Burgoyne said. The network now includes Jane Armer, director of nursing research at Ellis Fischel, and her doctoral advisee, Pamela Ostby, as well as Lee Ann Woolery, who directs MU Extension’s new Community Arts Program. 

The growing impact of the conversations prompted the group to apply for a Mizzou Advantage grant, which they received in early 2013. The grant will allow them to continue performances on and off campus as they seek funding to develop more scripts. The troupe performed April 30 at Mizzou Advantage Day and is currently planning a performance for Sedalia, Mo., and several other communities for Breast Cancer Awareness Month next October.

— Kelsey Allen