Research Based Theatre | ACT II Studio | Dr. Ross Gray

ACT II STUDIO has been at the cutting edge of research-based theatre since 1995 creating plays that deal with a variety of health and social issues. Included among these are shows which have been performed before health practitioners, teaching hospitals, associations and conferences, support groups and community audiences across Canada and the US.

Three of the plays, “Handle with Care?”, “No Big Deal” and “Ladies in Waiting”, are based on social science research conducted by Dr. Ross Gray of Toronto-Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre. In each case, Artistic Director and Playwright Vrenia Ivonoffski, aided and abetted by ACT II STUDIO actors, translated the research into dramatic form, with the exception of “No Big Deal” which was co-written with Dr. Ross Gray.  

HANDLE WITH CARE? is about women living with metastatic breast cancer. In 1997 the research team conducted focus groups with women suffering from the disease (which had spread beyond the breast to other parts of their bodies) in eight communities across Canada. This is a condition for which there is treatment but usually no cure. The information gained was just too powerful, the words and experiences just too compelling - not the stuff for academic journals - it had to be presented in a dramatized form. The women talked about how difficult it is to regroup after the diagnosis; how getting information can be difficult; how family and friends are usually supportive, but often don’t know what to do or say. Two plays were created, one directed at health professionals and one designed for community audiences. The plays debuted in 1998 and toured the following two years with over 200 performances across Canada and the US. The plays deepened the understanding of what it is like to have the disease and how those living with it would like to be treated by families, friends and caregivers, to make all their lives a little easier.

NO BIG DEAL? raises the curtain on prostate cancer. It deals with the challenges men face from diagnosis through treatment to a year after prostate surgery; as well as its effects on couples during this time. One survivor described the play as “funny, poignant and very moving; beautifully done and very easy to watch”; the Toronto Star described it as “a play about what men don’t talk about”. It was developed from transcripts of interviews conducted by the research team with 28 men and their spouses.  The play highlights the different ways in which men and women deal with anxiety over health issues.  Not only did it illustrate men’s proverbial ‘stoic silence’ and women’s ‘need to talk’, but also with exceptions to these.  It also explored how different coping mechanisms were both ineffective and effective at different stages of the journey toward health. Over seventy performances toured during 2000 and 2001 in communities across Canada and the US. It was revived in 2010.

LADIES IN WAITING was created from the results of nine focus groups, held in urban and rural communities in Southern Ontario, with women who had survived treatment for breast cancer for at least two years.  A total of seventy women participated, ranging in age from 32 to 84 with a median number of years since diagnosis of six years. The drama uses myth to underscore the paradoxical experiences of breast cancer survivors who discover that the effort to appear courageous can both sustain and exhaust. That even though the disease is behind them, it continues to live with them every day.  The play reveals that it is no small thing to have met this diagnosis and live with the uncertainty. Written in 2002, thirty performances toured over the following year. In 2007 it was invited to perform at the Oncology Nursing Society Advanced Practice Nursing Conference in Chicago. As a result, a group attending that conference booked the performance for their Conference in Iowa the following year. And when the hotel heard about this, they donated the rooms for the cast.  On that junket the cast also performed for the community in Omaha, Nebraska at a regional cancer centre and in a historical theatre where a bat joined the cast for the curtain call.  

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