MU theater troupe sparks breast cancer dialogue

Tuesday, October 22, 2013 | 8:35 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — MU's Interactive Theatre Troupe has expanded its repertoire to start discussions about breast cancer in mid-Missouri.

The troupe typically performs these shows during October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The first show of the season was performed in Lafayette County on Oct. 17. The next performance will be at 3 p.m. Oct. 28 at the MU School of Medicine. More performances will be held next spring.

Two years ago, the troupe's producer and director Suzanne Burgoyne and Heather Carver, chairwoman of the MU Theatre Department , began discussing how to use interactive theater as a way to teach medical students, health care providers and the community about dialogue surrounding breast cancer. They aim to have an open conversation about sensitive situations such as giving a breast cancer diagnosis or discussing treatment.

They collaborated with James Campbell, professor of family and community medicine at MU, who consulted on the medical issues and doctor-patient communication. Together they created an experience where actors and the audience can interact.

Students are allowed to freeze actors at any time during the performance and explain why they would perform the scene differently or ask why the actors made certain decisions. This allows the audience to clear up any confusion or concerns the audience may have, Carver said.

Carver is a breast cancer survivor and wrote the three five-minute scenes that make up each performance. Burgoyne, who is a curator's teaching professor of theater at MU, directs the plays.

Carver said she based some scenes in these plays on her experience as a breast cancer survivor in order to capture real stories. She talked to other breast cancer patients, medical caregivers and family members to help mold these scenes into real-life situations.

"The idea of the plays is to show complexity of the relationship between the patient and the doctor, instead of just the consequences," Carver said.

Burgoyne specifically worked with the actors to develop a biographical background for their characters in order to better perform their roles. Campbell said the audience engages in "transformation learning," and they learn to solve the dilemma through interaction with the characters.

"For example, one of the medical students will come down and replace the role of the doctor and improve the performance," Campbell said. "It gets them to kind of practice in their own minds how they would make the situation better."

In addition to performing for medical students at MU's School of Medicine, the troupe also performs for students in the School of Nursing, School of Social Work, and audiences in the community, including breast cancer survivors.

This is the first time the troupe has done an interactive collaboration with the medical school. Burgoyne has been using theater as a teaching tool for other disciplines since the 1980s. For example, other performances stage discussions on difficult topics such as domestic violence or body image. After meeting with Campbell, who specializes in breast cancer dialogue, they came up with the idea of combining his research with Burgoyne's involvement in theater.

"I keep my eyes out for opportunities," Burgoyne said. "It's quite amazing how once you see something and start expressing interest, a network forms."

Actors in the plays are current and former MU students, faculty and staff, as well as members of the Columbia community. Burgoyne said many of the actors in this project have a personal connection to breast cancer.

The project started in 2011 after the troupe received a grant from Susan G. Komen Mid-Missouri to perform plays throughout the mid-Missouri region on the topic of breast cancer. The troupe received a Mizzou Advantage grant in 2012 and plans to apply for additional grants.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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