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Performance as Narrative Medicine: Reflections on Virtual Performances (Event Recap)

This post was written by Contributing AuthorAlyse Keller, facilitator of the “Performance as Narrative Medicine” workshop held on March 19, 2021. 

For this Performance as Narrative Medicine Workshop participants are led through an active and participatory performance workshop. Narrative medicine, as conceived by Rita Charon at Columbia University, is a theory and practice that emerged as a way to teach physicians and medical professionals, “to practice with empathy, trustworthiness, and sensitivity toward individual patients.” Over time, narrative medicine has evolved in order to bring the “powerful narrative skills of radical listening and creativity from the humanities and the arts to address the needs of all who seek and deliver healthcare.” Merging the central tenets of narrative medicine with the fundamental principles of performance, this workshop allows participants to share, reflect, and heal through the creation and presentation of personal performances of health and illness—specifically as they relate to their experiences with Coronavirus

Performance is a method, object of study, and practice that is accessible to all. Performance possesses the ability to educate, progress social-justice-oriented agendas, and communicate general awareness about the lived experiences of health, illness, and disability. In particular, this workshop provides an opportunity to come together and share personal experiences with illness and health. This workshop leads participants through a brief explanation of the concept of performance as narrative medicine, an applied breakout performance activity, and a discussion/feedback session at the end. The workshop promotes active learning through the hands-on, experiential process of crafting and sharing personal performance. 

The participant faces popped up on the screen, one after the other. Some looked tentative and others looked excited and ready. A small group of us gathered on a Friday afternoon to play, to share and to create. As the facilitator of the event, I was both excited and nervous as this was my first time testing out my method of “Performance as Narrative Medicine” in a group. Not only that, it was also the first time I would conduct a performance workshop virtually. Performance by nature is a visceral and embodied practice which doesn’t naturally lend itself to virtual spaces. It worried me that the individuals would walk away underwhelmed and lacking the embodied fulfillment of performance. It worried me that technical difficulties would take over and their performances would be interrupted. I had more questions than answers going into this workshop and as such I was forced to get creative with how I defined performance and what expectations I and the participants should have.    

After leading participants through performative ice breakers, a description of “performance as narrative medicine” and then some vocal and body warm-ups, we began.  I asked the participants to write a story about their experiences with Covid. I modeled this by writing my own and performing it for them. I performed my own personal story to give the participants one idea of how to perform virtually, but especially to make them feel comfortable with performing their own stories. Once the participants wrote their “Covid stories” they all jumped right in and began rehearsing and then performing their stories in small breakout groups with each other. All participants were willing to actively engage in the workshop and added performative elements to their own storytelling. I was thrilled to see the level of engagement amongst participants. Some moved away from the camera to perform, others included props to engage their audience and others played with vocal variety to create scene and character.  

After sharing their performances, I held a feedback session and asked individuals to share their experiences. Some of the feedback I received included: 

“In these times of Covid, when we do not yet understand the effects of prolonged isolation on the psyche, performance is a mode of expression and a mode of receiving feedback from human intellects, in other words, creating meaning out of our existence.” 

“There is definitely a therapeutic effect of performing for others, a huge sense of relief coming out of exposing one’s vulnerability to a friendly and non-judgmental small group. As for the instructional side of it, absolutely, I did not really know much about “performance as narrative medicine” before so this has been very informative.” 

In the end, conducting this workshop was a productive and challenging experience. To be able to share this method and event with other individuals who were interested in how performance might work medicinally and pedagogically for them, was beyond rewarding. I look forward to growing this workshop and offering an evolved version again at some point—maybe when we can gather in face-to-face spaces! 

 I end my post with this quote one of the participants left me with: 

“To quote Audre Lorde: ‘When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcomed, but when we are silent we are still afraid, so it is better to speak.”  

Alyse Keller, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at CUNY Kingsborough in Brooklyn, where she teaches in the Department of Communications & Performing Arts. Her research looks at the intersection of performance and narrative and specifically focuses on her family’s experience with maternal multiple sclerosis. 

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