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MU’s Interactive Theatre Troupe takes on breast cancer

Physician-patient relationships are not valued as much as they should be in the medical field, theater professor Suzanne Burgoyne said.

Nov. 6, 2013

MU’s Interactive Theatre Troupe spent October performing its Breast Cancer Dialogues in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month.

The troupe hopes to continue performing the three dialogues for the duration of the academic year.

Theater professor and show founder Suzanne Burgoyne said interactive theater is different from a regular theater production. The troupe begins by acting out its scenes, then answers questions from audience members while remaining in character, she said. The scenes are then presented again, but the audience is given the opportunity to participate and change the situation to how they believe it should go.

The troupe used to be five hired actors, but now consists of more than 50 individuals ranging in age from college freshmen to campus faculty. Audiences have broadened as well, Burgoyne said. Not only does the troupe perform on campus, but also in Columbia and surrounding areas.

Among these actors is theater doctoral candidate Bradley Stephenson. In addition to acting, Stephenson is also a graduate assistant and facilitator for the troupe’s other performances. From his work with the troupe, Bradley said he has grown to understand the taboos surrounding doctor-patient relationships.

“There are two sides to this story,” Stephenson said. “It’s not always right to cast blame on one side for when something goes wrong.”

Burgoyne said there is a lot to be learned from the performances.

“I feel as if we’ve been helping students (and people who come to see our performances) learn how to deal with some of these issues either as survivors or as someone who knows a survivor,” Burgoyne said. “It gives people a chance to talk about these issues.”

The scripts have been performed in front of more than 400 participants, including students in the medicine, nursing and social work fields, as well as patients, survivors, family members and health care professionals.

Stephenson plays the role of “the husband” of a cancer survivor in one of the dialogues. He has noticed a trend within the troupe’s audiences.

“When we perform for the medical students, I am completely ignored,” Stephenson said. “In the nursing school, I am asked about why I am not more involved in the situation. However, when we perform for breast cancer survivors, I am attacked (with questions).”

Stephenson said his experiences are exactly why interactive theater has become increasingly important. It is an underutilized teaching methodology, especially in the medical field, Stephenson said.

The troupe’s presentations connected them with professor Jane Armer, director of nursing research at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, and Pam Ostby, a graduate student in nursing. Ostby plans to do her dissertation on the use of interactive theater for patients.

Ostby, who said she’s always had passion for theater, originally learned about interactive theater from one of the troupe’s Breast Cancer Dialogues. She intervened as the nurse in one of the dialogues. She now plays the same role in the dialogues for the troupe.

As a doctoral student in the nursing program, Ostby said she sees interactive theater as an important education tactic.

“I don’t think you can stand at a lecture podium and give a lecture on communication,” Ostby said. “Interactive theater gives students and patients alike the opportunity to change a situation that they don’t feel is right.”

The troupe was established in 2003. It was founded by Burgoyne and theater professor Clyde Ruffin as part of a nationwide initiative sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, according to the troupe’s website.

In 2011, the troupe’s interdisciplinary team received the Susan G. Komen Foundation of Mid-Missouri grant for $67,000 to develop a project about doctor-patient communications regarding breast cancer.

The troupe was responsible for writing its own scripts with the grant money. Associate professor and Department of Theatre chairwoman Heather Carver conducted a lot of the troupe’s research, according to its website.

Participants were recruited to work in focus groups in which they were interviewed by a guide. The data was then analyzed and incorporated into a script that identifies common patterns in physician-patient relationships. Burgoyne delivered the scripts to about a dozen actors, who recreated the true stories.

In fall 2012, the Breast Cancer Dialogues received another grant for $25,000 from Mizzou Advantage. The grant is currently being used to expand the troupe’s scripts and secure performances in the upcoming months.

The troupe has been successful in its outreach, Burgoyne said. The troupe will continue to perform its Breast Cancer Dialogues, as well as work on new scripts about media, body image and nutrition.

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