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ASU Department of Theatre students take on life's hardest role in new Mayo Clinic partnership

April 26, 2005

The ASU Herberger College of Fine Arts' strong collaboration with Mayo Clinic Hospital has lead to one of its most inventive partnerships.

The Herberger College Department of Theatre is collaborating with Mayo Clinic Hospital in a pilot educational program to improve nurses' ability to communicate effectively and compassionately with patients and families regarding end-of-life issues. One of the most challenging areas for nurses is having conversations with patients and families facing a life-threatening illness.

For their part of the project, theatre students will role-play patients and family members with end-of-life issues. All of the participants, save one local actor, are graduate MA or MFA students in the Theatre for Youth or Theatre Performance programs. For the students, the program is both an innovative way to hone their craft and impact change in patient relations. The first role-play between the students and nurses will take place on Friday, April 29.

The idea to use theatre students is something that we had never explored before," said Denise Betcher, unit based educator for Mayo Clinic Hospital. "We couldn't have had nurses role-playing with other nurses; it wouldn't have been realistic enough."

The nurses individually or in pairs will have conversations with a "patient and family member" about death, including making known their wishes, collaborating on decisions about which treatments to pursue and helping the patient and family cope. The conversations will last approximately 20 minutes and will be videotaped.

After the conversations are done, the nurses and Department of Theatre students will meet with facilitators to watch the videos and debrief. The facilitators, who are social workers and nurses from Mayo Clinic and the Hospice of the Valley, will guide discussions about what technique(s) worked and suggest alternative ways to approach issues. The nurses will share their thoughts about leading the conversation and the students will provide input as to what they liked and how they felt from a "patient and family" perspective.

Jeff McMahon, interim head of the Herberger College Theatre MFA Performance program, inquired as to why participating students wanted to be part of the program. Their responses demonstrated that many of them have been impacted by end-of-life situations and recognize the importance of education in this area. Here are some of their thoughts on being part of the project:

  • "This is something that is so important to the field of medicine and can have such strong residual benefits in the ways we can begin to look at the process of dying and how to deal with a human being on all levels of being a human being, not only the body itself." (Angela Giron, MFA candidate in Performance)
  • "My father's oncologist was a wonderful man who followed up with not only my Dad but the rest of us as well. It was such a devastating time in our lives, but he appeared to be right there with us. I believe that Mayo's project can help other families experience a "good" death, if that's at all possible." (Nicole B. Gibson, MFA candidate in Theater for Youth)
  • "I know how critically important it is to have medical professionals that know how to interact with those who are dying and their friends and family. I'm happy to be a part of educating and helping medical staff learn how to handle those situations and provide care and counseling where it is needed" (Charles Dee Rice, local actor)
  • "The incorporation of theatre techniques in education drives my personal learning endeavors. I believe that engaging in a learning experience allows the learner to find value in the material personally rather than simply accepting the importance of a lesson. But mostly, I am excited to make a difference and I think this project will do that for the participants involved and extend out to the families and patients that they touch." (Corrine McCawley: MA candidate in Theatre for Youth)

The Herberger College and Mayo Clinic began collaborating in 1998 to promote community and healing through the arts. The partnership has produced innovative programming for patients, families and caregivers. Among the many notable projects was the 2001 musical The Doctor Will See You Now, a poignant and humorous look at the issues facing patients and caregivers in the healthcare system. Performed by ASU students, the musical was followed by a forum moderated by local healthcare professionals and educators.

The Herberger College of Fine Arts Department of Theatre at Arizona State University provides a comprehensive range of courses in performance and directing; design and production; playwriting and dramaturgy; theatre and performance studies; film; and theatre for youth. Its Theatre for Youth program is nationally ranked in the top three and its creative writing/playwriting program is ranked 15th among public institutions by U.S.News & World Report. To learn more about the Department of Theatre, visit 

Media Contact:
Mica Matsoff
(480) 965-0478