How applied theatre can improve children’s clinical experience in hospital

Reader in Applied Theatre and founder of Newman University’s Community and Applied Drama Lab (CADLab), Dr Persephone Sextou explores the impact of applied theatre practice on children in healthcare

Periods of ill health resulting in hospital stays can be daunting times for children as they face an unfamiliar medical environment combined with the possible physical symptoms and limitations of their ailments.

Confined to sterile wards and clinical surroundings, their imagination can play a crucial role in normalising their hospital experience.

Applied theatre offers a unique way to spark their imagination, facilitating a shift in the children from passive patients to active participants in the performance.

With 27 years’ experience in teaching and researching theatre, I have had the opportunity to study the effect of applied theatre on children who are receiving treatment in hospitals.

A passion for philosophy led me to develop a symbiotic and eudaemonic [happiness evoking] approach to researching theatre, children and wellbeing. The works of Aristotle and Heraclitus, for example, contextualise the purpose of my applied theatre research in environments of illness and suffering and its potential to contribute to a more caring and compassionate world through theatre.

I have also been inspired by the work of colleagues in the fields of applied theatre and the arts in health and wellbeing, resulting in my desire to bring together the artistic and the clinical.

My intention is to introduce a ‘dance’, a dialectic debate between the artist who interferes in hospital and the audience who are the ‘residents’ in the kingdom of the unwell. The challenge is introducing a playful dimension to this marriage of the artistic to the clinical so that it appeals to children.

CADLab’s most recent project, ‘Bird Island’ is a three-year theatre and art project for children in hospital funded by BBC Children in Need. Using the findings of my research and the valuable experience I have gained during my time at Newman University delivering bedside theatre projects to children, it aims to engage the children’s imaginations and allow them to access a world of normality beyond the hospital environment.

‘Bird Island’ uses puppets, participatory, intimate bedside performance in hospital wards to uplift the children’s spirits and help them to relax, engage with the story, interact with characters in the dramatic and feel better during their stay in hospital.

I am currently working on the implementation of the next phase of this project for 2017-18. We have developed a play based on the story Lollie, the Rough Collie and the Magic Kiss, which draws on my own childhood memories. ‘Lollie’ will be performed with the assistance of two actresses, a living puppet, a storytelling quilt and a set of portable of cherry trees.

We piloted the play with an audience of children in one-to-one storytelling workshops in paediatrics at Heartlands Hospital and in schools in the West Midlands last autumn. It has been received well by the children, their families, the nursing staff and play specialists, as well as by the schools.

Some of the most insightful feedback we have received has been in the form of pictures drawn by the children. They depict themselves as participants in the story, portraying themselves alongside the main characters. Their explanations of their drawings show a deep engagement with the story and reflect their enjoyment of it.

What I have seen so far suggests the children experience a period of ‘escape’ from the medical identity of the ‘ill and unable child’. In adopting the identity of a participant in the story, they can fully enjoy the freedom of the fictional world despite their illness. In my research, I have found that this ‘escape’ helps them to reduce clinical stress and anxiety during their treatment and regulate their overall clinical experience.

The children we piloted the play with shared some great ideas, helping us to adapt it to better meet their interests and needs.

One of the things that the researcher in applied theatre discovers is that learning from our audiences and sharing examples of our research and practice with them may help us to become both better artist-researchers and better citizens.

The gift of compassion stands out as the greatest of all, provided that we participate ethically and respectfully in the lives of those who suffer through the arts. We use the arts in public service and by doing this, we increase the opportunity for a more humane and caring world.

Dr Sextou’s book, Theatre for Children in Hospital. The Gift of Compassion, published by Intellect and Chicago University Press, is out now.