Setting the Stage

AACP Article

Together with the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy, a local theater company wrote and staged a play based on patient experiences with healthcare and medication from a national survey.

By Olivia Johnson

In late 2016, healthcare professionals and students from the University of Minnesota saw the day-to-day intricacies of their industry performed in front of them.

A troupe of actors staged the play—‘Go Ask Alice’—at Coffman Memorial Union to give healthcare professionals, pharmacists, faculty and students a fresh perspective on medications, patient concerns and policy. Jack Reuler, Mixed Blood’s artistic director for ‘Go Ask Alice,’ said communicating healthcare issues through theater allows those in the field to see the nuance and complexity of the medical world.

“We do a lot of this, especially in healthcare,” he said. “We take certain issues that are consistent with our mission and try to translate that into the language and conventions of theater.”

Reuler said he has directed similar productions in the past, and the theater company itself has done over 100 similar productions in the last 27 years.

“We felt we had adequate information on both the professional level, the systemic level and the personal level to tackle this,” he said. “This was really a series of vignettes that were glued together in interesting ways through music and theater.”

Reuler said the show had characters that took on the perspectives of pharmacists, providers and patients. In total, Mixed Blood Theater’s six-person cast portrayed about 25 different characters during the hour-long production, which ended with a discussion between the 100 attendees.

“The discussion was really robust,” he said. “I think that the healthcare providers and pharmacists that were in the audience really saw a perspective that they either see on a daily basis or see on a daily basis and were unaware of the implications of their behavior.”

Storytelling as a Powerful Teaching Tool

Dr. Paul Ranelli, a professor in the College of Pharmacy and the play’s the main organizer, came up with the idea two years ago. He said he reached out to Mixed Blood Theatre after seeing the group perform a few years prior.

“I liked what they did,” he said. “When I got this idea for a community partner…I wrote an e-mail to the artistic director outlining what I was interested in.”

Though Ranelli doesn’t have theater background, he said he enjoys watching performances and realized their teaching potential.

“It was looking at theater as a way for people to really respond and to see how these stories would have an impact on them,” he said.

The stories covered medicine, rules and regulations patients encounter in the healthcare system and humorous moments related to drug advertising, Ranelli said.

“There are monologues that are given by people playing different characters in the medication environment,” he said, adding that the production is fictional but was based on true stories.

In one recurring story, titled “Prior Auth,” the audience follows a medication user’s escalating attempts to get his medicine. In “Down the Rabbit Hole,” the play revisits a patient’s entry into an emergency department and deals with medication issues. The goal of the show was to entertain but also help the audience think deeply about situations involving medications. “The play was effective as an educational tool for both professionals and the lay audience,” Ranelli said.

Alyssa Bortz, a graduate student in the social administrative pharmacy program, got involved in the project last fall as a research assistant.

“Dr. Ranelli needed a graduate student to help him find background on using theatre as an educational tool,” Bortz said. “My role…has been to go through comments from a national survey.”

In the 2015 survey, she said respondents were asked to give general feelings about medicine and healthcare. Bortz then went through the responses and identified themes and sample patient stories to give to Mixed Blood for the production.

“For me, it’s really about the audience taking away more empathy for people that they’re taking care of,” Bortz said. “They’re people and they have lives and their illness and their medications can really affect their own lives and the lives of their loved ones.”

Keeping the Momentum Going

In light of the play’s positive reception, Ranelli is seeking funding for additional performances. “Making the production a regular component of a curriculum would require support for about 20 professional creatives or a different model than a full theater performance,” he said.

While he’s not ruled out re-configuring the performance to shoot a video version, he feels it wouldn’t have the same effect as live theater. “Nothing is out of the question, though, which is an exciting part of such a project.”

Article originally appeared in the Minnesota Daily.
Olivia Johnson is a writer with the publication.
Additional reporting by AACP staff.