UVA ER nurse draws on performance experience to broaden minds

When Tim Cunningham went to UVA’s Rural Area Medical Clinic in Wise, Virginia, he was reminded of visits he had made to medical clinics as a member of Clowns Without Borders. “It blew my mind how this clinic in the richest country in the world was run like clinics in rural Africa and Asia,” he said. As a capstone project for his nursing degree, Cunningham captured the patients’ experiences via recorded interviews. A few days later he had seven hours of stories and a mission to translate them into a palpable format “to raise awareness of these populations and their struggles of not having health care.” Drawing from his performance experience and a desire to incorporate more creativity into the medical learning environment, Cunningham distilled the recorded interviews into a one-man play.

“Out of Their Way” is currently a one-man show that Cunningham labels, “a work in progress.” It was recently performed at the school of nursing as an introduction to a workshop on effective listening skills for nursing and chaplaincy students. The 85-minute production features impersonations of people Cunningham interviewed at RAM delivering monologues from the collective material. “I interviewed about 30 people and I started hearing repeating themes,” he says. “The majority comes from one particular person and sound bites used from other people I interviewed.”

From a theatrical standpoint there are many problems with the show that detract from the intended message of compassionate care. Cunningham’s clown training peeps through the main fabric of the work at times, distracting the audience from the voices of his characters. He presents an entire monologue on stilts, supposedly to represent a tall person, which serves more in confusing the audience rather than enhancing the show. A newscaster character at the end of the show spouting out multiple facts about the failings of the American health care system is too heavy handed and out of context to the rest of the play, degrading the purity of the RAM patient characters and their words.

Where Cunningham shines is his interpretation of the people he met at RAM as “ He does a really good job of capturing the spirit of people and the challenges they face without insurance,” says Audrey Snyder, Assistant Professor in UVA’s School of Nursing. There are some truly wonderful moments in the production where the stories of this underserved population shines. One line from a character called Ed describes a catch 22 situation for an unemployed minor with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, “Too sick to work but not sick enough to get benefits.” Another character has just had several teeth pulled and is excited because his mouth will shortly be pain free, demonstrating gratitude for a service most of us would find appalling. And perhaps the most poignant and beautiful moment of the piece, is when the audience witnesses Eve’s physical reaction to clear vision after receiving glasses from RAM as she begins to read to her young son–a puppet Cunningham has cleverly constructed out of props used in previous monologues.

What surprised Cunningham most during his interviews were the positive attitudes of the patients. “No one was expressing self pity. People were so grateful.” Although the experience of “Out of Their Way” was a little uncomfortable (like the guy who had his teeth pulled) the overall effect is a positive one.

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