Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Coming to Knowledge about Metastatic Breast Cancer: A Drama

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Coming to Knowledge about Metastatic Breast Cancer: A Drama

Article excerpt

The drama Handle with Care? Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer was created by researchers, women with breast cancer, actors and theatre professionals. The process of creating the drama was also a process of creating knowledge. Drawing upon writing by feminist theorists, this article explores the diverse means by which the people involved in creating Handle with Care? acquired, challenged and validated knowledge about the realities and possibilities of living with advanced breast cancer.

Over the past few decades, significant critical attention has been directed at conventional theories of knowledge. Dominant epistemologies have been scrutinized with particular skepticism by feminist scholars and activists. Examining entrenched beliefs about how the world is reliably known, many feminists find these beliefs partial: find them incomplete, and find them biased.

In the academy, and more broadly, certain epistemic practices have been taken as the only genuinely trustworthy practices: observing, thinking abstractly, reasoning, reading (certain things), (certain kinds of) writing. These practices are sanctioned through their shared norms of justification, norms that are in no way value free. This article is a case study of epistemic practice, an examination of the diverse means by which a group of people acquired and validated a particular knowledge. It describes the process by which a drama, Handle with Care? Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer was created, considers the epistemic struggles the script development team encountered, and outlines the practices that brought us to shared knowledge about what it can mean to live with metastatic breast cancer.

Using dramatic techniques to create knowledge is not new, of course, as the burgeoning literature on performance ethnography attests (see, for instance, Turner and Turner 1982; Conquergood, 1991; Pelias, 1999). What may be rarer about this particular dramatic foray into knowledge creation are the ways in which our knowledge -- and our practices of generating knowledge -- were negotiated, and the nature of the group amongst which the negotiation took place.

Creating Handle with Care?

In January 1998 we met for the first time: members of a research team based at Toronto Sunnybrook Regional Cancer Centre, participants in Act II Studio (a seniors' theatre studies program at Ryerson University), two women with metastatic breast cancer (Jan and Mary Sue) and women active in the breast cancer community. Seated on mismatched chairs in a room at Ryerson, we introduced ourselves and began to talk. Our goal was to create a drama, working from research conducted the previous year about the information needs of women with metastatic breast cancer. For several months we met, exchanged copies of the focus group transcripts, and learned about body sculpture. With the guidance and prompting of Act II Studio's artistic director, Vrenia Ivonoffski, we engaged in an extended process of improvisation, creating a series of "vignettes" (three- or four-person body sculptures and short scenes) from themes identified in the research.

Over the summer, Vrenia gathered together the images and scraps of dialogue we had generated in the vignettes and selected from the transcripts, and wrote a script. Multitudinous rehearsals ensued, involving a cast of women with breast cancer, actors and researchers. In October 1998 we launched Handle with Care? Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer, and have since performed at oncology grand rounds at Regional Cancer Centres across Canada, and to public audiences in almost every major city in the country. Audience reaction to the drama has been overwhelmingly positive; performances were extended 15 months beyond our original schedule. Elsewhere we have described factors related to the success of Handle with Care? and the insights we gleaned about transforming qualitative research into dramatic production (Gray and Sinding, 2000; Gray et al. …

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