The Readers’ Theater (RT) program at East Carolina University is co-sponsored by the Department of Bioethics and Interdisciplinary Studies at The Brody School of Medicine, coordinated by Todd L. Savitt, PhD, and Sheena M. Eagan, MPH, PhD. Students audition each semester to join the cast and read the part of a character in a medically-related short story that has been scripted by our adapter. Students perform these stories in traditional readers’ theater style, seated or occasionally standing, at the front of a room, reading aloud from a script (no memorization needed), and using their voices and facial expressions to enhance the words.
What makes the program so meaningful and attractive to students is the audience before whom they are performing. We take our stories outside the medical center and into the communities (for example a retirement community, public library, or church), where these future physicians and nurses can meet and talk with future patients. Following an approximately 30-minute reading at a site, a faculty member leads a discussion of the story with the audience and the cast. The two groups thus get to hear each others’ concerns and points of view on issues raised in the story. It is these discussions and not the performances themselves that form the heart of the readers’ theater program. The discussions provide a means for students to meet the general public and learn about ideas and attitudes laypeople have about the medical and nursing professions and about current health care issues.
We have performed a variety of stories, one each semester, since 1988. Students involved in the ECU program receive no course or other educational credit for their efforts. They devote only a few hours each semester to practicing their lines, attending one rehearsal, traveling to the communities for performances, and actually performing and discussing the stories. Usually each student performs two or three times a semester. We present five to seven performances with casts of from four to eight students each semester.
Responses from community audiences have been uniformly positive. People enjoy meeting the “young doctors and nurses” and talking about medicine with them. They view ECU’s School of Medicine, a relatively new institution for which residents of the region fought hard, as their school, and appreciate the efforts students make during the discussion and after the performance to answer their questions and express views clearly and fairly. The program has provided the medical and nursing schools with good PR and the students with unique insights into their future patients.
Todd L. Savitt, Ph.D., has coordinated the Readers’ Theater Program at ECU since its inception and will gladly discuss the project with all who are interested. He may be reached by phone at 252-744-2622 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sheena M. Eagan, MPH, PhD, joined the Reader’s Theater Program in 2016. If you are interested in hosting a special session of Reader’s Theater for your class or group please contact her via e-mail at email@example.com.
The stories listed below were adapted for The Readers’ Theater program by Greg Watkins, except the two noted below adapted by Ann Beam.
Stories About Physicians and Patients
“A Face of Stone” by William Carlos Williams
A busy physician takes an instant dislike to a young immigrant couple who bring their infant to the office for a check-up. He stereotypes them and treats them brusquely each time they ask his medical attendance. The story tracks the evolution of this initially poor physician/patient relationship.
“The Girl With a Pimply Face” by William Carlos Williams
A physician makes a house call to an immigrant family’s tenement where a sick child requires medical care. He is immediately taken by the young adolescent sister of the baby. In the course of caring for the hopelessly ill infant, the physician helps the girl and deals with the poverty and strong emotions of the children’s mother.
“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams
A physician called to the home of an immigrant couple must deal with a very sick young girl who refuses to allow him to examine her throat.
“Fetishes” by Richard Selzer
A woman who has never informed her husband about her false teeth is told she must remove them to undergo surgery. She deals with the differing personalities of several physicians in seeking a solution to her dilemma.
“Imelda” by Richard Selzer
A medical student observes a well-respected, arrogant plastic surgeon deal with the sudden death of a patient during surgery.
Stories About Ethical and Social Issues in Medicine
“Follow Your Heart” by Richard Selzer; adapted for Readers’ Theater by Ann Beam
The wife of a man whose organs have been transplanted into several patients seeks solace from her grief in an unusual and ethically questionable way. The story puts a human face on organ transplantation by looking at the issue from the perspectives of the donor’s family, the organ recipient, and the transplant physician.
“The Enemy” by Pearl Buck; adapted for Readers’ Theater by Ann Beam
A white American soldier requests the medical assistance of a Japanese physician during World War II in enemy territory. The Japanese physician dislikes whites and must struggle with issues of loyalty, duty, and racism.
“The Doctors of Hoyland” by Arthur Conan Doyle
A second physician opens a practice in the town of Hoyland and causes the physician who has been in practice there for years much anguish over gender issues.
Stories About Aging and/or Chronic Illness
“A Mistaken Charity” by Mary Wilkins Freeman
Local “do-gooders” convince two independent elderly sisters, one hard-of-hearing and the other blind, to leave their dilapidated rural house and move into an old ladies home in town, with interesting consequences.
“A Question of Mercy” by Richard Selzer
The story is told from the physician’s perspective when a terminally ill AIDS patient asks his physician to help him die. Issues included in the story relate to whether a physician assisting a patient to die in order to relieve suffering is an appropriate role for a doctor, the morality of euthanasia, and the nature of the physician/patient relationship.