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Can theatre and performance enhance nurse education? Nursing student Chelsea Barrett believes it can

“Theatrical performance can highlight real life in a uniquely special way, stimulating all your senses and all your feelings,” says Chelsea, who has been inspired by the drama-based resources offered by her nursing degree course at Kingston University. “It’s given me a whole new perspective on nursing.”

Chelsea says that performance helps emphasise just how important our methods of communication are. “The beauty of drama is that it shines a light on how we as health care professionals act in relation to our body language and our tone of voice,” she adds. “The drama-based resources have really opened my eyes.”

The drama-based resources have really opened my eyes

The resources – put together digitally to help students working and studying during the pandemic – are a collaboration between Kingston university and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. 

They were inspired by the nurses that doctoral programme leader at the Guildhall Dr Alex Mermikides met while her brother Milton was treated for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia – a serious type of blood cancer.
While supporting her brother through treatment, Dr Mermikides became aware of the emotional effect nursing staff could have on their patients. “Even the simple things like the way someone looks at another person or sitting down next to a patient rather than standing over them makes a real difference,” says Dr Mermikides.

One element of the resources, Careful Encounters, a recorded theatre performance, explores nurses’ feelings and the impact they can have on patient care as well as on their own wellbeing. The performance poses several questions allowing students a space to reflect on their emotion, care and empathy as a nurse.

Nurses are often concentrated on everyone’s physical needs but their own

A reality check

“We care so much for our patients, but lack in self-care and empathy towards ourselves,” says Chelsea. “The way the performance uses dance to show our everyday routine was a reminder of how physically demanding both dancing and nursing are – dancers work hard to mind their bodies, so that they’re capable of performing to their best ability.

“But nurses are often concentrated on everyone’s physical needs bar their own. To look after patients as best as we can, we need to be mindful and look after ourselves too. It’s been a reality check.”

Student nurse Chelsea


Chelsea says the resources have helped develop her confidence in her communication skills, especially when COVID-19 has made some aspects of learning more of a challenge. “It’s made me much more conscious of the impact we can have, and I think I’ll have greater awareness in the future,” she adds.

It’s also been a revelation to discover how much common ground nursing and theatre share, says Chelsea. “Both require good observation skills and a certain amount of emotional intelligence. Just how drama requires creativity, you also need it in nursing when responding to each individual patient’s unique needs and feelings. It’s brought home just how creative and practical our course is and that’s refreshing.”

A part to play

James Wilson, Principal Teaching Fellow at Southampton University, says theatre can play an influential role in education

Utilising theatre methods are complementary to teaching students about nursing. When I started in nurse education and adopted interactive theatre methods into my toolkit, I was able to present experiences that touched feelings, stimulated thinking and facilitated learning through action.
Human beings are hard-wired to learn by doing. Experiencing something through interactive theatre allows participants to observe, analyse, pause, rewind, take action and reflect.
In my toolkit is an innovation called ‘Digital Interactive Theatre’ which combines live theatre with ‘choose your own adventure’. During the live theatre, students can make difficult decisions on behalf of an actor at choice-points using a response system. It helps to present a low dose exposure to a real clinical situation within a classroom setting while deepening their empathy and understanding of their professional responsibility.
I am in no doubt that blending nursing and theatre can teach us so much.

More information

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Words by Sophie Goode / Main picture by Ben Roost

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