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Theatre Professor’s Play Serves as Springboard for Medical Students’ Discussion of End-of-Life Decisions

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Aaron Densley performs a scene from "Drifting"

Penn State theatre professor Bill Doan and collaborators Andy Belser and Elisha Clark Halpin took their play, “Drifting,” on the road to the Penn State Hershey Medical Center on September 15, where M.F.A. acting students Megan Pickrell and Aaron Densely performed scenes for an Ethics and Professionalism class. The play, about siblings who find a way to connect after one of them suffers a traumatic brain injury, was used as a springboard for discussions about the ethics surrounding end-of-life decisions.

The performance was initiated after Dr. Michael Green, one of the instructors of the course, saw the play when it was performed in Hershey last spring. “I was quite moved by it, so I talked to Bill and Andy. They thought the play would be a great way to introduce topics to students and generate discussion.”

Doan said the performance connected art and science while presenting a real-life situation. “Performing ‘Drifting’ for an audience of medical students and professionals brought art and science into dialogue with each other in an immediate and powerful way. The medical students felt the impact of being inside an end-of-life situation that will be their reality in the very near future.”

Megan Pickrell performs a scene from "Drifting"

According to Dr. Green, he and his colleagues in the Department of Humanities try to teach students about the patients’ experience and concept of illness, and how that affects family members. “This play is so visceral and raw that it will affect people in an intellectual and emotional way, and will help them understand what this type of illness experience means to families,” he said. “The cool thing about the play is Bill tries to get into the head of someone whose thoughts are unknown.”

“Drifting” began as part of an interdisciplinary arts-based project in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Arts and Design Research Incubator (ADRI). Operating within the A&A Research Office, ADRI provides seed funding, technical support and workspace to high-impact arts and design research projects that, although often in their initial stages, have a strong probability of attracting future external funding.

The play was recently selected to be featured at the 2015 Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) National Conference at Virginia Tech, Nov. 8–11.