Help an LA actress bring hospice patients' stories onstage

An experiment: can our community’s collective brainpower help an idea become reality?

The intention

Once a week, actress Erica Gerard visits the homes of hospice patients in West Los Angeles. She sits with the patients and does whatever makes them feel comfortable: talk, listen to music, read a book, enjoy the silence, and more. As someone who only buys vintage furniture because of the stories each piece holds, Erica especially enjoys seeing the patients surrounded by all of their belongings.

Erica would love to record and perform their life stories. “People at the end of their lives are some of the most rich, complete and interesting treasures we have access to,” she says. “None of us have been there yet, but we’re going there, so tell us what it’s like.”

featured

Though her deceased grandmother won't be in the audience, Erica knows she'd be proud: “I can hear her voice saying, 'You’re doing a mitzvah,' which is a good deed." (Photo: Alan Cleaver, Flickr/Creative Commons)

The obstacles

Erica hasn’t started. Here are the barriers she has identified:

  1. Interviewing people in hospice care can be logistically challenging. Her first patient passed away, and her second was unconscious much of the time.
  2. She doesn’t have an end vision of the show yet, and the options about artistic choice, direction, etc. can feel overwhelming.
  3. She prefers collaborative projects to working alone, and so far doesn’t have anybody to bounce ideas off of and propel her forward.
  4. There’s a whole world of medical confidentiality laws and issues she has yet to explore.

How you can help

Erica would to love see this project grow and succeed. Can you offer her any advice?

  • Is this an idea that’s already been done somewhere in the world?
  • What are some interviewing strategies to help draw out specific stories?
  • What have you always wanted to ask somebody who is near the end of life?
  • How should she approach this project so as to share stories without exploiting patients?
  • How can she find allies and resources?
  • What are some ways to stay focused when life’s distractions get in the way?

Leave a comment below or send her a message through Idealist and if the project progresses, we’ll keep you posted!

Do you have an idea that’s just starting to brew? If you’d like us to consider posting it as part of this series, email celeste [at] idealist [dot] org.

Tags: , , , ,





Comments (17)


  1. Jean Johnstone writes:
    April 6, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    Hi Erica, and Celeste!

    What a great idea for a project. I would ADORE to help, though I am in the SF Bay Area, so not your immediate stomping grounds, Erica. I am an actor/director/educator and work primarily through collaboration with others. It’s the best! I am actually starting an organization right now to help people pursue projects like yours, whether thru giving them an organization to do it from/thru, linking them to others in the field, or providing other resources and support; but we are in the infant stages right now ourselves. You can check out the basics, however, at http://www.appliedtheater.org, and expect to see that website morphing before your eyes as we grow! It is exactly that search for allies and resources that you mention, which I am hoping to provide. I’ve done a lot of this particular kind of theater work myself and found that there are many people and organizations doing similar stuff, but we don’t all seem to know about each other. That makes it hard!

    I would adore to hear how this project takes shape and would be perfectly ok to be contacted and be someone to have a chat with and bounce ideas off of, or to go into some of your questions in more depth. I believe you are asking the right questions, in terms of how to approach the project without it being exploitative, for starters!

    Consider me an ally and resource, and I hope I can provide more as we get on our feet! I am so excited you’re going to go for it!

    All the best,

    Jean Johnstone
    Co-Founder and Director
    Applied Theater Action Institute
    http://www.appliedtheater.org


  2. Kim writes:
    April 6, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Wow Erica! I think this is a cool idea! I will see if I can come with any ideas. My grandmother is 96 years old. One question I always wonder is, when she is falling asleep for the night, does she think about the fact that she may have just “finished” her last day on Earth? Does she worry, on a daily basis, of the things that she always wanted to do or planned on doing, but never did? I guess that’s two questions. I don’t know if that would be an appropriate question for someone on hospice…..Keep me posted on your progress!

    Peace,

    Kim


  3. larry walker writes:
    April 7, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    I suggest you but the book Working by Studs Terkel. Browse through the book at a library or B&N and you will see what I mean. If you would like to correspond and work jointly – my wife and I live in CT – please write to me. Good luck.


  4. Jenny T. writes:
    April 7, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    Very cool! In fact, I had been thinking of a very similar project. I am an aspiring documentarian, but I have a full-time job and haven’t been able to explore this yet in my free hours. So cool that you’re working on this project! Perhaps there is a way to collaborate (just like with Larry).

    The legal and “exploitation” issues are good ones. I would suggest that what you really want is to get a release from the interviewee. IF there is any question of their capacity, I would also get a release from the next of kin. Since you can pick and choose whom to interview, it doesn’t seem worth getting into legal gray areas if you can get full consent. I would imagine you’d want to make sure the hospice also gives release so they can’t make claims against you later. I’m not speaking as a lawyer, but just from what I know about these things. The exploitation question is more an ethical than a legal one. I think you have to consider your intent, to capture stories, to get perspectives from the end of life, as good ones. I mean, one could argue “exploitation” in lots of works of art, so I would worry less about that..


  5. Gene writes:
    April 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I always wanted to ask someone that is close to death what was the highlight of their life. What made them the person that they have become through the years? Are there any regrets? Hopefully this question can lead to interesting stories


  6. Laura writes:
    April 7, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    I’m a hospice Social Worker in FL. There are many pt who are on hospice services and are more than happy to share their feelings others not so much. Maybe the hospice you’re working with can help identify a pt or 2 that are willing to be interviewed and then connect you with that pt and his/her family. I’ve had pt tell me their life’s story as well as caregivers share stories too. Please feel free to contact me I would be more than glad to help.


  7. Julie Eakin writes:
    April 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm

    You may want to read this book, Erica:
    “Easing into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers” by Stan Goldberg. We just reviewed it and ran an author interview with him in the book review journal I edit, ForeWord Reviews. It’s excellent and may give you some ideas about content for your film. I think he would be interested to hear about your project, too. Good luck!


  8. Deneen Bowen writes:
    April 8, 2012 at 11:45 pm

    Hi Erica,
    This sounds like a great project. I am also an actress and have had the experience of writing a one-woman show. The person whose work most informed mine was Anna Deveare Smith. She uses her skills as an actress to brings multiple voices together around a topic, allowing people to understand the kaleidoscope of perspectives around an issue or event. She began her work after the LA riots in the 90s. Highly recommend her work. If I can help you in any way, feel free to reach out!
    Deneen


  9. Lotus Seng writes:
    April 9, 2012 at 7:38 am

    This is a great idea and it covers both of my passions: arts and giving back. I’m a filmmaker and have been working on causes close to my heart for yours.

    Funds and resources: Got to indiegogo or kickstarter and make a compelling video whereas you will illustrate your objectives, why you want to do this and why people should fund your projects. To find qualified volunteers go to Craig’s list; dragunokconnects or mandy.com and post a job posting for volunteer crew for your production. Many industry professionals seek opportunities to gain experience and a lot of us want to help for a good cause.

    Playwright;

    if you decide to utilize the stories of the patience, ensure that the direct relatives are signing a release form as well. Make sure that when you bring this play to the audience that it’s done as ethical as possible. I believe this is an amazing cause and a wonderful idea. Do invest in counsel from both an entertainment attorney as well as an estate attorney before you design your production any further. You want to make sure you are legally protected and that everyone involves buys into the concept. The objective is sensitive and beautiful at the same time. I would start here before I sart anywhere else with my planning.

    interview techniques:

    Tagging on the previous. I would ensure to record every conversation in as much forms as possible: writing, video and sound.

    If you need any help, please feel free to connect. I’m open to advice and help.


  10. Erica Gerard writes:
    April 9, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Wow! Thank you to this incredible Idealist community for the thoughtful and insightful comments. I’m truly touched by all of the generous feedback about the project. If any of you live in the LA area and would like to be involved, send me a message and tell me a bit about your creative interests and how they might benefit this project. I would love to hear from you!


  11. Shelly Gerard writes:
    April 9, 2012 at 11:29 am

    What an unbeliebable and unselfish project. Working with Hospice patients requires a very special person with a vey special heart.
    The feed back your have received is a tribute to the gernerous nature that is inherant in those that truly care.
    Sometimes helping people requires a little business thoiught. I would suggest you consider setting up a 501(c)3 non profit organization to help fund this outstanding venture. There must me a lawyer of firm min LA that would assist (pro bono) in settting this up. The recommendation previously made on getting release forms signed is valid and should be persuded.
    Good luck and that you.


  12. Meghan writes:
    April 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Great idea! We can never have too many people compiling the thoughts, experiences, and knowledge of people as they grow old/approach the end of life. A nurse recently released a book that might be of interest to you that compiles the most common regrets of dying patients (book: http://www.amazon.com/The-Top-Five-Regrets-Dying/dp/145250234X and the blog post it’s based on: http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html). It also reminds me a lot of a friend of mine who is a music therapist in hospice. Perhaps there is a music/art therapist working in LA hospices that you could talk to for advice. Good luck!


  13. Put Barber writes:
    April 9, 2012 at 4:52 pm

    I echo the enthusiasm others have expressed so well. This is a project well worth exploring.

    I would, though, explore other options besides setting up a new (and separate) 501(c)(3) organization as a platform for this work. Running a 501(c)(3) is a major challenge in and of itself.

    The comments suggest a lot of the questions that need to be answered now and in the future. Recruiting a small group of supportive people to brainstorm with you would be, I think, a great first step. I hope the comments here have encouraged you to the point where you’ll feel comfortable asking people with the right skills and experience to help. Sitting in a comfortable place with some snacks and a pad for taking notes while talking through the issues may be a good way to map out the next steps.

    Good luck moving your ideas forward!


  14. Idealist writes:
    April 10, 2012 at 9:52 am

    I shared this post on Twitter and Jennifer Greenwell, aka @mpowerednetwork, tweeted back:

    “@idealist how about contacting local writers club for help with end of play? Writers are creative & always looking for unique story ideas”

    Could be worth exploring, Erica!


  15. Katy Kelly writes:
    April 10, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    I love this idea! As a journalist of the 21st century I am often faced with new experiments and ideas that utilize new media for an interactive and engaging story telling. Thank you for sharing and being open to the advice of others. I look forward to seeing how this plays out.


  16. Dmatny2nurse writes:
    April 10, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    Im a hospice nurse for many years. I’d be happy to answer questions and perhaps submit some stories–good luck!


  17. judy fleming writes:
    April 15, 2012 at 3:03 am

    kickstarter.com! Do it, people will support you. This is a wonderful thing. Also, contact local arts organizations, there are tons of art grants out for these sorts of projects. I have also done a lot of work with oral history, and Harrell Fletcher (social practice artist) is a mentor of mine, he did a performance in Vancover, B.C. where he put normal peoples lives/conversations on stage. Really powerful stuff! My suggestion when doing this kind of work is to avoid capitalizing on the misfortunes of others for your art practice, make it something worthwhile to the hospice patients and their families.


Add Your Comment

Want to see your face in the comments? Click here to upload your photo with Gravatar.






Like what you're reading?

Subscribe and get fresh daily updates from Idealists in Action.