Arizona State University's Hugh Downs School of Human Communication is a milieu where, among other things, a lot of fascinating public performances happen. Way beyond what you might remember from your own college days, when it's possible you even made fun of communications majors. (We all eventually learned that human communication, while it seems it ought to come as naturally as breathing or pooping, is something we could all benefit from knowing more about.)
This weekend, theater artist and doctoral candidate Lou Clark will perform a one-woman show, A Good Death, that's of interest not only to academic types but also to workers in hospice and healthcare in general, as well as to people whose loved ones are or have been ill or dying -- so pretty much all of us. And Friday's opening night will be followed by a high-powered panel discussion sponsored by ASU Institute for Humanities Research and The Consortium for Science and Policy Outcomes.
Clark, whose Ph.D's area of emphasis "is around intersections of performance and health," incorporates data and interviews from Dr. Deborah Way's dissertation on a working model of compassion as it relates to the practices of hospice care professionals, who in general experience more fulfillment and less stress and burnout than medical staff in other settings. Way's findings help round out the characters Clark presents, including a nurse, nurse's assistant, social worker, spiritual care provider, Clark herself, her partner, Julie, Julie's mother, Sara -- a former nightclub entertainer who has dementia -- other hospice clients, and Frank Sinatra.
Death and its associated loss and grief, as well as the stress of illness prior to death, are universal and influential experiences that people, especially people in Northwestern European-extracted cultures like the U.S.A., don't often discuss or prepare for sufficiently. Though there's no entirely good way to say goodbye and no one right way to cope, expressing and sharing the experience through art can contribute to a smoother and more informed journey.
And when sensitive, trained, talented artistic professionals apply their skills to the raw material of true stories, an audience is conducted through a relatable process that will in turn help them communicate better. That's what Clark hopes will happen for folks who attend A Good Death. "Our program's interdisciplinary," she tells Jackalope Ranch, "and what's so wonderful about it is to come in and be able to look at issues of health through a performance lens."
With large cohorts of our population aging in the next 10 to 15 years, healthcare is a promising career in which most of us will know someone who works, even if we don't ourselves. And while many of us will face end-of-life issues that will result in hospice care for ourselves or a loved one, many more of us will face the challenge of communicating with and caring for parents or partners with dementia. I asked Clark whether there's content in the show that will resonate with that experience.
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"There's a scene based on a nursing assistant who loves to sing to patients," Clark says, "with her singing to a non-responsive patient." It sounds like a lovely reminder that what someone will find comforting isn't always what you might think they need -- sometimes your heart needs to make the decisions.
A Good Death will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Friday, October 4, and Saturday, October 5, with the October 4 post-show discussion around the play's topics and themes facilitated by Lee Gutkind and Dan Sarewitz. The final performance is Sunday, October 6, at 4 p.m. Admission is free, but donations to Hospice of the Valley will be accepted at the door, at Empty Space in the Performance and Media Arts Building, 970 East University Drive in Tempe. (It's on this little-known part of the Tempe campus, the old movie theater in Cornerstone Mall at Rural and University.) Call 480-965-5095 for more information.
Editor's note: This post has been altered from its original version to reflect the correct performance dates and times from Friday, October 4, through Sunday, October 6.