After the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, Ayvaunn Penn noticed the stream of misinformation swirling around online.

The theater instructor at Texas Christian University was interested in the gap between where medical professionals and the general public were getting their information. Over the summer, she got the idea to try to bring those perspectives together in the theater.

It just occurred to me, why not use my profession, what I know and love, what people like to gather around — and that’s stories — to help share accurate information,” Penn said. “And also using theater to help everyone’s voice be heard. Because ultimately, when people take to social media, when they talk with their friends, their families, they want to be heard.

The result is the inaugural Stethoscope Stage play festival happening at 7:30 p.m. on April 9 at PepsiCo Hall on the TCU campus.

The first hour of the event will include a variety of monologues and short plays written about the pandemic by a mix of community members, health care workers and students. An hour-long panel discussion with medical professionals, including Dr. Drew Weissman, whose research contributed to the development of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, will follow.

Lauren Mitchell is an assistant professor of medical education and director of narrative medicine at TCU School of Medicine. Narrative medicine emphasizes the importance of listening and understanding patients’ stories to provide better care, and students within the program are regularly required to write reflections throughout their training.

“Our students, for better or worse, have spent the majority of their time in medical school navigating COVID in some way or other. A lot of what they’ve already been thinking about and writing about has been the effects of the COVID pandemic,” Mitchell said.”

Giving their students an opportunity to share those reflections seemed like a natural fit.

Sarah Cheema, a third-year medical student at the TCU School of Medicine, said she’s benefitted from the practice of writing about her journey. Working in a variety of clinical settings, Cheema discussed COVID-19 vaccines regularly.

I would notice that patients’ entire demeanors changed the second I asked about the vaccine,” Cheema said.

Some of those difficult conversations weighed on her as she tried to be empathetic but also make sure that she was giving evidence-based medical guidance.  

My whole piece is kind of about this inner struggle of like, I know how I feel. But, at the same time, I can understand why some of the patients feel the way that they feel and why they’re so closed off to it. And kind of this inner battle of me being like annoyed or wanting to convince them and then me also being like, but I understand,” Cheema continued. “We all want the same thing: to be healthy and free.”

Her piece, titled “Not Another One,” will be read as part of the production.

If you go…

Date: April 9

Time: 7:30 p.m.   

Location: PepsiCo Recital Hall on the TCU Campus and streaming online

Admission:  Free

Chase Crossno is an assistant artistic director and an assistant professor of medical education at TCU School of Medicine, and was struck by what Cheema had written.

“It brought me to tears immediately. I was so moved by the effort to take perspectives, that was threaded throughout that piece,” Crossno, who also has a master of public health, said. “That is something that I think is the cornerstone of becoming a really effective health care provider is moving into a space where you’re not caught up in your own experience, but you find the humility to hold multiple perspectives at once in an effort to really care for other people.”

The pieces featured in the event were selected to represent a variety of perspectives, including people who might have been hesitant about vaccines or quibbled with the idea of wearing masks.

Mitchell admitted when reading through some of the submissions there were some that made her bristle, but she appreciated Penn’s response to her concerns.

“This person might have viewpoints that you find bothersome. But if this person’s play is in the festival, the likelihood that they’re going to go and then stay for the panel, that features Drew Weissman among other physicians, where they talk about the vaccine and its safety, is worth keeping in mind as we’re figuring out the selection process,” Mitchell said. “And of course, it was a nuanced process. It wasn’t necessarily like, ‘Oh, this person’s openly anti-vax, let’s bring them in, so they learn something’.”

Penn is hopeful that the theater setting can foster nuanced dialogue in ways that other settings can’t.

“You’re inviting your audience member to step into the shoes of those characters on stage and not only step into shoes that fit them or that they like, but to suddenly be at the least open to thoughts different from their own,” Penn said.

Beyond the setting, Mitchell said the format of the monologue is also a powerful tool for humanizing others.

“It forces you to be quiet and to listen, right? It’s not a dialogue where you have to swallow your reaction or you have to try to be a good listener. Like, literally the tenets of theater say as an audience member your job is to bear witness and bite your tongue — regardless of what you have going on inside,” Mitchell said. “So I think that in and of itself is a really important and useful practice for everyone just to sort of take this opportunity to hear what’s really being said.”

They’re hopeful the event will foster meaningful dialogue and can serve as an antidote to confirmation bias. As for the event’s future, Penn said she’s already received several suggestions of topics to tackle next year.  

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Marcheta Fornoff

For just over seven years Marcheta Fornoff performed the high wire act of producing a live morning news program on Minnesota Public Radio. She led a small, but nimble team to cover everything from politics...

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