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Using Drama to Communicate Difficult Subjects

Recently on LinkedIn I wrote, “Using drama to communicate difficult subjects is an emotional yet non-threatening approach to understanding and acceptance.” This isn’t something I just think…it’s what I know. I have experienced it first hand.

For fifteen years I have been taking the play, “Waltzing the Reaper” to audiences across the country. Over and over I hear remarks about how the play affected an audience member. I am pleased to hear that someone feels less afraid to die due to the play. Or that someone feels they must begin to think about their own death and to make plans for their future. Or that they wish to express how the play impressed them and generated ideas they had ignored. Or that they want to remember the words of the character, Vera, when they are dealing with their patients.

There is no better way to the brain than through our emotions. People can talk and talk at us but we can never absorb all that they are saying. But, create a play that touches ones emotions and a message is received so strongly that an action will occur in the receiver. This includes audiences across the board, whether medical doctors, hospice experts, students, or lay persons.

Susan Bauer-Wu, President, Society for Integrative Oncology states, Using performance arts, “Walzing the Reaper” is an inviting and nonthreatening way for clinicians, students and the public alike to explore complex, very real, and emotionally difficult issues related to end of life. It brings attention to the human-side of living with illness and facing death.

U.Va. School of Nursing Presents Compassionate Drama About End-of-Life Care

What is your play about? Dying? Family Relationships? Tell me more about it.

Because I am asked this question so frequently, I decided to share a review of the play from a performance I gave last year at the University of Virginia. The reviewer does an excellent job of getting to the heart of the play. He even went as far to phone the author for her input. Please enjoy this excellent description of what happens on stage with “Waltzing the Reaper.”

Talking about death and dying is never easy. But for nurses, navigating through the issues surrounding end-of-life care can be all in a day’s work.

On Feb. 28, students and faculty of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, employees and volunteers from Hospice of the Piedmont,and members of the Charlottesville community packed the McLeod Hall Auditorium to experience a drama about dying.

A one-woman play, “Waltzing the Reaper,” tells the story of an elderly woman facing the end of her life as she moves through the dying process and struggles to mend broken family relationships.

Sponsored by Hospice of the Piedmont and the School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care & Empathic Leadership Initiative, “Waltzing the Reaper” refuses to hide from the realities and complexities of death in today’s society. The play asks a hard question: How can compassion and dignity be given to the dying?

In a remarkable performance, actress Judith Gantly – whose resume includes extensive national television, film, broadcast and theatrical work – met the challenge of playing two characters. In the play’s first half, she played Vera, a cancer-ridden dying older woman; in the second half, she portrayed Vera’s daughter-in-law, troubled and confused by her role as a caregiver.

Gantly’s non-stop, one-woman performance mesmerized the audience, who lingered on the actress’ every word as if they, too, were at her dying bedside. In the McLeod Auditorium that evening, Gantly’s movements and speech created a sacred space onstage for every member of the audience to share.

With laughter, tears, song, dance and silence, Gantly brilliantly conveyed the emotional struggles of one woman’s dilemma after being hooked up to “six gurgling, buzzing, flashing technical wonders” – even though being resuscitated is against her living will.

“Why do my offspring want to keep me here like this, preserved but not alive?” Vera asks. “How long must I endure this?”

“Using performance arts, like ‘Waltzing the Reaper,’ is an inviting and nonthreatening way to explore complex, very real and emotionally difficult issues related to the end of life,” said Susan Bauer-Wu, Tussi and John Kluge Endowed Professor in Contemplative End-of-Life Care at the School of Nursing.

“Judith Gantly’s performance is one of the many ways that the U.Va. School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care & Empathic Leadership Initiative is bringing attention to the human-side of living with illness and facing the end of life,” she said.

The initiative helps to prepare nurses who regularly deal with people in life-changing situations, from one-time illness to death itself. Nursing faculty involved in this initiative offer retreats and workshops dealing with death and the dying across the spectrum.

The ultimate vision of the initiative is to reduce human suffering and promote health and well-being by fostering compassionate people and systems.

In “Waltzing the Reaper,” Vera does a kind of dance with death, passionately expressing her joys and sorrows about her life as if to establish her personal narrative one last time before her last gasp. As she moves through the last moments of her life, Vera begins to view heaven as a new way of being – “like dancing the waltz.”

In an email interview, award-winning playwright and filmmaker P. Paullette MacDougal said that she originally wrote “Waltzing the Reaper” with Gantly in mind for the part.

“Having a play written expressly for you is a magnificent gift,” Gantly said after the performance. “Then to have the privilege of taking this lovely play to audiences at hospitals, universities, conferences, seminars and workshops is a complete joy.”

When MacDougal wrote the play in the 1990s, her neighbor was living quite contentedly in her own house at the age of 107. But that was then. Such a lifestyle is not often the case for the elderly anymore.

“It has been a great privilege for me to have had close friendships with many older people and to learn from them how it is in their last days,” MacDougal said. “But in most institutional settings, it is not so good.”

MacDougal used to sing in a musical group that entertained in what were once called “nursing homes.” In many of these places, residents were tied to their wheelchairs all day in the hallway and were desperate for human contact.

“My own grandmother said her stay in this kind of facility was like ‘being in Hell,’” MacDougal said.

MacDougal’s primary purpose in writing “Waltzing the Reaper” was to let more people know about the services of hospice. On Jan. 28, MacDougal’s own mother passed away at the age of 100. She died under hospice care.

Ordinary language often does not seem to work when the conversation is about death and dying. Through artistic creation and dramatic performance, words and images can take shape to offer healing and hope to those facing death as well as to their families.

“Our work goes beyond end-of-life care and encompasses the larger context of health care,” Bauer-Wu said. “It’s about changing the experience of health care for individuals and changing health care systems through infusing compassionate and empathic presence and action on all levels – at the bedside and in management and administration.”

As Nursing School Dean Dorrie Fontaine succinctly puts it: “Compassion is not a choice, but a necessary ingredient in caring for patients and families. Organizations need to choose compassion.”

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Do Not Regret Growing Older – It is a Privilege Denied to Many

Recently a friend posted this quote on Facebook: “Do Not Regret Growing Older. It is a Privilege Denied to Many.” How true. Immediately I thought about a woman who became a friend and colleague of mine only less than two years ago. I met her because she hired me to perform my play at one of her conferences.

We talked by phone prior to the event. I felt we had a lot in common. She was a woman who was comfortable with herself and was confident in her work.

We met the day of my performance. She was cool, calm and relaxed while I was busy finding props and setting up my stage. We did not have a lot of time to talk but there was something special about her. I had a feeling that I could talk to her about my business and she would be helpful.

About one month after my performance, I was very pleased to hear from her again. This time she wanted me to perform at their large annual conference. I was thrilled. What an endorsement.

The day of the performance, she was predictably very busy answering everyone’s questions and arranging for each speaker. Nothing ruffled her though. I was very impressed with her sense of peace.

I performed my play, we said goodbye and I left for home. However, that was not the end of our connection. If I had a question about my marketing, I knew I could contact her to give me her advice. Last summer I emailed her yet again another question and amidst a very busy time at work, she sent me a detailed email answering all my questions. I was so appreciative that she would take the time to respond at such a busy time for her.

I printed out her response. Actually, I made three copies. I never wanted to forget what she wrote, nor lose her email.

That email response came the very last day of August 2013. In November, I learned that she had died in October. I still have such trouble believing that. We had very little contact but she made a big impression on me. And. she showed me care and concern that I will never forget. She is often in my thoughts. I know she will always be.

“Do not regret growing old. It is a privilege denied many.”

Waltzing the Reaper

Paullette MacDougal wrote Waltzing the Reaper. I will never forget the phone conversation we had when Paullette called to say she had written me another one-woman play. Five years prior she teamed up with Joan Weimer, PhD to adapt Weimer’s book, “Back Talk: Teaching Lost Selves to Speak” into my first one woman play, “Back Talk.”

Knowing what an excellent playwright MacDougal is I was anxious to hear all about this new play. Imagine my surprise when she said it was about dying. I recall saying something like, thanks a lot. But then she sent me a first draft of the play and I was hooked. Paullette has a gift to see into the characters she creates and understands what makes them so wonderfully human. She celebrates their quirks and their flaws and allows us to see them as they really are.

I’m not sure how many drafts Paullette produced. She worked and reworked fine tuning what she felt was important to bring to the public through her play. I remember the first time I read a draft aloud to her. It was difficult for me to get through the play without weeping openly. I wondered if I would ever be able to make it through the play without reacting to what is happening to my character, Vera. Actors are first human beings responding to the words of the play then we adapt to being the character we create.

Once I asked Paullette what inspired her to write this lovely play about family relationships and dying the way we choose. She told me a story about her grandmother who played a large part in Paullette’s childhood. This play honors that woman. Before every performance, I send thanks to many people who have encouraged and assisted me along my life’s path. I especially send my gratitude to Paullette and her dear grandma.