Conference Report: Empathy and Affect in Medical and Theatrical Practice

Empathy and Affect in Medical and Theatrical Practice: A Workshop, University of Warwick, 13th and 14th October 2017

Conference report by Stefania Crowther and Vivan Joseph

This two-day interdisciplinary workshop at the University of Warwick, funded by the Monash-Warwick Alliance, brought together theatre practitioners, clinicians, scholars in medical humanities and creative artists to explore the connections between performance, pathology and emotion. The central questions of the workshop, approached through performance and embodiment as well as scholarly enquiry, asked what the role of empathy might be in difficult clinical encounters, when empathy might be counter-productive or counter-therapeutic, and how both positive and negative affect may be created and managed between doctors and patients.

The opening session on Friday morning was led by workshop organisers Dr. Elizabeth Barry (English, University of Warwick), Dr. Jane Montgomery Griffiths (Theatre, Monash University, Melbourne), and Dr. Jan Parker (Classics, University of Cambridge), with contributions from Dr. Anne Whitehead (English, University of Newcastle, and author of Medicine and Empathy) and others. The speakers introduced the key themes for the event, beginning with the potential of theatre – and in particular theatrical portrayals of different pathologies – to elicit empathetic engagement with an audience. This was linked to questions around how such portrayals might inform the dynamic between clinicians and patients (including interactions with patients who have difficulty expressing themselves), and the role that performance might play in helping us understand how mental distress is manifested.

Highlights of the event included two sessions on Friday led by Dr. Griffiths which explored Sophocles’ play Electra in relation to certain complex health conditions, and a talk by Dr. John Michael (Philosophy, Warwick) on work he has done with young people with Möbius syndrome, with additional insight provided by Professor Jonathan Cole (Professor of Neurology at the University of Bournemouth/Poole Hospital, and author of About Face). Dr Anna Harpin (Theatre, Warwick) also spoke about mood and psychosis in contemporary film, and Professor Swaran Singh of Warwick Medical School contributed insights into his work in mental health and applied theatre.

The event ended with a roundtable discussion engaging all participants about future projects that might develop from the workshop. A recurrent theme, which could serve to sum up this thought-provoking event was the collective recognition of the considerable scope that theatre has not only for the training of medical students and practising clinicians, in offering ethical exploration and emotional catharsis, but also for expanding the way in which we think conceptually about empathy at all.


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