Healing through play SHEC speaks to McMaster professor Hartley Jafine about the importance of play in the first of their interview series

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By: Suzy Flader – SHEC

For the next few weeks, the Student Health Education Centre column will be featuring interviews with McMaster staff and faculty who address and support the health and wellness needs of students. This week we are showcasing Hartley Jafine, who teaches courses in applied drama and arts-based research in both the Bachelor of Health Sciences and Arts and Science programs. His thoughtful and creative pedagogical methods have earned him an MSU Teaching Award in 2011-2012.

SHEC: Tell me a bit about yourself – your background, where you went to school, etc.

Hartley: I was born and raised in Toronto. I did my undergraduate degree at Acadia University, and was planning on becoming an actor. In my fourth year, I was introduced to Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, which inspired me to get involved with applied drama. I ended up doing my Masters in Applied Drama overseas in London. While there, I started playing around with how applied drama could be related to healthcare, primarily due to past experience. Before I turned nine, I had lost my mother and three grandparents, and so I had spent a lot of time in hospitals.

We tend to think of hospitals as negative spaces that no one ever elects to be in, and so I wondered if applied theatre could be used to make them less scary and frightening. I started thinking – if medicine is a performance, how it is performed? How do patients and doctors perform? How can theatre aid this performance? This got me thinking about healthcare training and the idea that theatre skills are life skills. After my Master’s, I moved to Hamilton and got involved in the BHSc program, where I have been teaching ever since.

SHEC: At SHEC we are dedicated to events and discussions surrounding mental health. How does your work in applied drama fit into this spectrum?

Hartley: In several ways! Firstly, it provides a space for students to play. Nowadays, in our culture, we think of play as a negative word, or one that represents a frivolous waste of time. But play can be serious. The act allows people to have fun and form a community. We can temporarily live in a world without rights or wrongs, and put our feelings into that playful space. Secondly, theatre gives us the tools to critique and challenge our cultural norms and examine alternative ways of being. Thirdly, I have had some students create verbatim theatre pieces, where they turn the stories of people struggling with mental health into a theatre production. These shows were designed to reduce stigma and encourage reflection and dialogue.

SHEC: Tell me about your work with healthcare professionals. How have you found it to be effective?

Hartley: The work that I do with healthcare professionals revolves around skill development (e.g. communication, empathy, etc.) as well as the health of the healer. Traditionally, healthcare workers are trained in a very black-or-white manner, thereby producing a discomfort with ambiguity. But ambiguity is where health often lives. My work brings healthcare professionals or teams together and focuses on skill development and play, thereby getting them to work and interact in new ways. Healthcare workers function in extremely stressful environments, so taking them off the wards to play creatively for an hour can have a major positive impact on their overall wellness.

SHEC: Have you looked at pre-med culture at all, especially the stress associated with it?

Hartley: The pre-med pressure to be perfect often continues into professional programs, and students can use the methods and strategies learned from applied theatre in their undergraduate years to respond to the stressful experiences in future professional/clinical environments. Early exposure to Applied Theatre and play responds to this pre-med culture by offering a space where there are no rights and wrongs, and no requirement to be perfect – this makes it very freeing. In my research, I am hoping to study the long-term implications of teaching applied drama in an undergraduate context.

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