A young couple sits side by side in a cramped room, the husband’s arm around his wife’s shoulders. Across from them, so close that her knees almost touch theirs, a counselor gently explains the biology behind a dreaded disease that has taken root in their family. Through quiet tears, the wife asks what the future holds for their baby daughter.
On the other side of a one-way mirror, a class in the College’s human genetics graduate program watches and listens. The counselor is one of their classmates, Megan Priston MS ’03. The “couple” is a pair of Sarah Lawrence theatre students, Daphna Klugman ’05 and Nehemiah Luckett ’04. The session, held in a Tweed House classroom, is part of “The Case Management Practicum,” a second-year course designed to prepare future genetic counselors for the mix of medical science and raw emotion that often comes with their field.
“Genetic information can be high-powered and scary, so the communications and assessment skills of genetics counselors are important,” says Caroline Lieber, who directs the human genetics program and teaches the course. “Real delicacy is needed when it comes to giving bad news.”
The human genetics and theatre programs have been cooperating in these scenarios for the past three years, offering students of both disciplines the opportunity to hone their skills in a setting bubbling with uncertainty. Some schools hire professional actors, but Lieber says it was “a no-brainer” for the human genetics program to stay in-house and use the deep well of Sarah Lawrence theatre talent.
“The theatre students are so believable,” she says, “that you forget it’s a role-play.”
The actors volunteer, receiving academic credit for participating. Most who take part, says Shirley Kaplan, director of the theatre program, are adept at improvisation and character development. They might portray a couple hearing the results of an amniocentesis or a test on their young child; they might react with denial, or belligerence; they might turn on one another.
“The actors get the chance to be emotional in the moment, to respond to a situation they’re not familiar with that takes them into on-the-spot decision-making,” says Kaplan.
For Scott R. Ritter MFA ’04, an actor well-known among the counseling students for his emotionally charged characterizations, the primary motivation was a chance to be of service: “I love the idea that acting—any of the arts—can be utilized in another field in a cooperative manner. I see the role of the actor as really challenging the counselor. I think doing that validates the concepts of both programs. It’s helped me as an actor.”
Counselors are given a few days to prepare for mock sessions and the diagnoses they’ll discuss; actors, though, are assigned their roles only minutes before class. It’s an arrangement, says Stephanie Andriole MS ’03, that approximates reality.
“The actors come in, as a lot of clients do, without much background learning,” she says. “That makes it a more plausible scenario.”
But not one without jitters. “It’s very anxiety-provoking,” concedes Andriole, “but I’m really glad we have the class. You get to observe four or five other people doing what you’ve done or are about to do. That’s as valuable as doing it yourself. It’s such a good tool.”
— James S. Bourne