Palliative theatre: What acting in front of dying people is like, and why it is a good thing to do

She was the first in the Czech Republic to play theatre for dying patients. She developed a one person show for holocaust survivors in the United States. She is also one of the first in this country to study game strategy in end-of-life care. Michaela Váňová, an actress, theatre lecturer and director, and doctoral student of the Theatre Faculty of AMU. 

Theatre can be a tool and it can have a higher purpose than simply entertaining viewers: Michaela Váňová has been reassured of the truth behind this statement many times.

The evidence was, among others, in the words she heard from her patient viewers who had just hours, days, or weeks at best to live.

“For example, I still remember this one reaction to a performance I played in a palliative care unit: ‘I can’t believe anyone still cares about me. I’m sorry it’s a stranger like you and not my family, but I take it as a proof that I still have some value left as a human.’”

Michaela Váňová graduated from a conservatory in acting, and when she was considering where to develop her professional skill set, an interview with actor Radovan Lukavský struck the right note for her.

“He said he found it a good idea to be able to do something besides acting. So, I tried to follow in his footsteps and went on to study education, like he did many years ago. Over time, I found that teaching as such was not my path, but I met teacher Radek Marušák in the seminars. He is also the head of the Department of Drama in Education at DAMU, and thanks to him I got to discover the world of drama education. I found out it was not all about ‘rehearsing plays with children’ – I realised that drama methods are capable of developing human personality in terms of theatrical and – perhaps more importantly – personality and social skills. It also involves a field of activity that is known as theatre lecturing,” Váňová describes how she discovered a job that is slowly becoming an integral part of any theatre.

By then, she had been a guest actor at the Minor theatre for several years. Tasked to focus on the breadth of the drama education field and come up with ideas for how to push it forward in the Czech Republic in her semester essay, she found it logical to use what she knew best – the Minor theatre – and developed a theatre education programme for schools and families.

“When I was done, I offered it to the theatre. The principal just loved it, he wanted to get it going straight away, and I was able to be there right from the start,” says Váňová who is currently in charge of of educational programmes at the Minor.

She speaks about theatre lecturing with a lot of zeal, and in the current era with virtually boundless opportunities for theatres and a search for new avenues while the obsolete ones are being abandoned, she thinks theatre lecturers are a must if theatres do not want to lose their audiences.

“A lecturer is basically someone who helps viewers to better understand the specific theatre’s plays through dramaturgical introductions, discussions and workshops. This is to prevent situations such as when, for example, a theatre embarks on a new direction, the viewer gets lost in it and leaves angry after the first half of the show. Through the lecturer, the theatre tells the viewers: ‘You matter to us. We’re not doing this for ourselves – we do it for you, and if you get lost in it, we will try to make it clearer for you.’”

Theatre can have a purpose higher than merely entertaining

While lecturing is a big topic for Michaela Váňová, her professional reach is much broader.

She focuses on baroque theatre as an actor member of the Geisslers Hofcomoedianten troupe and plays at Studio Dva. At the Minor, she was given the opportunity to direct the first theatre forum some time ago.

“It is a specific theatrical technique that pulls the viewers into the play, so that they can reverse the action on stage that concerns them in one way or another. The first show’s topic was bullying; it was titled Just Kidding! The next show, I’m Fine… covers the issue of social isolation that rose during the pandemic and keeps affecting children to this day,” she says.

A certain sense of higher purpose is the common thread, or leitmotif, if you will, of all her projects. She felt the same way about it when choosing her master’s thesis topic. “I wanted to combine acting with something that could benefit others. I went to a two-month internship in Portland, Oregon, and worked on two projects. I developed a theatre show about Czech Christmas and customs with children from expat families. In the other project, I created a solo show inspired by the story of Sir Nicolas Winton’s children.”

To be more specific, it was the story of a girl who was sent to the UK in 1939. The entire plot takes place at a train station, as she gets off a train and finds out for the first time that nobody can understand her. This is a pivotal moment that Winton’s children often mention in their diaries.

“With this show, I wanted to study theatricality – playing in Czech for foreign viewers who don’t speak my language and exploring what they understand or not on stage, or what they find difficult. I was able to play for schools, communities, and even for elderly holocaust survivors for whom the topic was hugely relevant. It was immensely powerful; they would come up to me after the show and hug me, moved by someone telling their own story. They explained how precious the experience was for them. That made me really feel it was something big. It made a great sense to me to know that theatre can have other purpose than entertaining viewers,” she says and adds that, at the time, she had already realised that theatre was not just her love and passion – it was and is also a very powerful tool, and one she wanted to continue working with this way.

I can die now

For her doctoral thesis, Michaela Váňová decided to work with applied theatre.

“This type of theatre is usually not played inside theatre buildings – we bring it to a specific environment with a specific target audience who have specific needs, and it responds to their needs,” she explains.

She had been contemplating the theme of separation from home, which she had also touched in the show about Sir Winton’s children, for a long time. She wanted to go deeper in connection with hospital patients who are unlikely to ever come back home – palliative care patients.

“The use of theatre in end-of-life care is an unexplored area – this is not being pursued elsewhere in the world, so I felt that this was a good path for me, and perfect for my doctoral research. I also knew that visiting patient viewers in this situation takes a lot of humility and that the theatre I bring for them is a very delicate affair,” she explains.

She plays every 20-minute show one-on-one, right in front of the patient’s bed, and it is the story of a penguin who got lost at sea during his first fish hunt and is seeking his way home. At a certain point, she interrupts the narration and asks the viewer to join in and complete the plot together.

“This depends on their condition. Some can watch the story, some can only listen to it, while others can take part in the play and communicate fully – entering a dialogue with me or even taking over the narrator’s role.” 

Michaela Váňová admits the project that would take her to two Prague hospitals twice a week for two years was often very difficult and painful to her, especially when patients discussed topics that were relevant to herself. 

“Some patients were moved to tears: ‘Thank you, I didn’t know I could still be moved to cry.’ Others told me the show had helped them to realise something they had been trying to figure out fruitlessly for the past 30 years. They said they finally understood why they had experienced certain things in life in a certain way, and now that they were finally able to grasp that, they could die peacefully… Some moments were so powerful they made me cry along with the patients, and they also assured me that theatre without a doubt has a role to play in end-of-life care,” says the woman who also teaches drama in education at DAMU and hopes to include applied theatre in the curricula one day, thus helping to develop the concept further.

Soul self-care

Considering the intensity and demands of the project, she was compelled to seek tools for self-care to keep her sanity.

“It’s my project, and I’m all alone on it, so I cannot share. Also, I notice that when my friends ask me what I experience and I get to describe it maybe four times, I don’t feel well. I open the affairs inside myself again and again, although I really need to close them in order to move on,” she says.

She started viewing her research diary as a potential self-care tool. Besides transcripts of the audio recordings of her encounters with the patients, she included her observations and notes in it, and added various doodles. “It was always a tree theme, because trees are all I can draw,” she laughs. That spawned the idea to open an Instagram profile where she could share her doodles along with her hospital experience. “I have since found that sharing it in my profile (Divadlem) is a great way to care for myself while safely describing what my work is about to all my friends at once.”

I want balance between my projects and my personal life

What nice things lie ahead? Without hesitation, she says there are a lot of them in both her job and private life. Work-wise, she mentions a grant she has obtained from the Vlček Family Foundation. With it, she can become the first Czech game specialist in palliative care for children, aiming to eventually develop a methodology for parents and social workers.

“Game specialists care for the mental wellbeing of children, adolescents and their parents. Their task is to establish a rapport with the families and foster their trust and willingness to cooperate in the treatment process or palliative care. To that end, game specialists use play as the most natural tool. In short, game specialists should help to build a sense of safety not just in children with ‘life-threatening or life-limiting diseases’ but also in their families, to give them shared feelings of joy and relief,” Michaela Váňová explains. She is currently developing a theatre play that will open the topic of palliative care for children and adolescents in cooperation with the Vlček Family Foundation.

“We seek ways to approach the topic with a certain lightness so as not to traumatise the viewers, yet also without covering our eyes. It is not an easy topic, but speaking about it openly makes a lot of sense to me.”

Another thing she finds fulfilling is the Gestalt Theatre training. She joined the lessons last year, and they have made her think more about what she wants, what she needs, and what is good for her while inspiring her to seek balance between project work and her personal life.

“I’m happy to have very nice relationships on different levels now. I’m also glad I have the time to pursue my other passion besides theatre, which is mountains. This summer, I’m going on a three-week trip to the Himalayas – to Little Tibet. I’m going with my sister. That’s a great source of joy for me.”