The Intersections of Research, Ethnodrama and Nutrition Education

(Publication pending, International Journal of the Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice IJCAIP, December 2015 Supplementary issue, Part 2)

Writing “Who Cares?” a preview ethnodrama about caregiving, feeding family, love and survival

Cheryl L. McLean M.A., Harrison McCain Visiting Scholar, Acadia University July – Sept. 2015

In November 2014 at The Power of the Arts National Conference in Ottawa, Dr. Catherine Morley, Assistant Professor in The School of Nutrition and Dietetics at Acadia University, approached me about writing an ethnodrama based on research about feeding aging family members.  Catherine Morley engages in research to raise awareness about the causes, prevention and management of malnutrition in aging Canadians and those living with dementia or changed health status.  In her research she hopes to reduce caregiver burden and the frequency and duration of hospitalization and institutionalization of older persons.

I had several reasons for agreeing to participate in the project.  Over the last ten years I have sought  to advance the creative arts in interdisciplinary research and practice while building a knowledge base supporting and informing professionals about the research and varied methodologies and how we work creatively across disciplines to offer hope for change and improve quality of life for individuals and communities.  I publish  The International Journal of the Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice and had recently completed a third book, Creative Arts in Humane Medicine (McLean, 2014)  published by Brush Education, a text for medical educators, practitioners, students and others in the allied health professions to help demonstrate how the arts and research contribute toward a more caring and empathic approach to medicine.  In the years previous I had several opportunities to address audiences and work with students at Acadia and I had hoped to continue my working relationship with this leading Canadian liberal arts university.  I presented a keynote for the Arts Based Research Network, Acadia, Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice, A Pond of Interdisciplinary Opportunity, followed the next year by the course Problems in Education Research in Creativity (MEd Curriculum Studies) and a keynote for the Acadia School of Education Summer Institute,  Navigating the Tides of Challenge and Change through the Creative Arts in Education and Research.

I too had special interests in aging and health and I believed it was critical to address quality of life issues for caregivers and older persons. During my graduate research at Concordia University, Montreal  I worked as a therapist with an “over sixty”  mental health programme and had written and performed in the ethnodrama, Remember me for Birds, about aging, mental health and autonomy.  This script was based on two years of therapeutic work and research with older clients, including Holocaust survivors, and was performed across Canada for health organizations and universities, among them McGill Medical School.

I had previous experience in Canada advocating for creative arts in interdisciplinary practice in the field of dietetics and supporting progressive dietitians and educators who used the creative arts in their practices. The book Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice, Inquiries for Hope and Change (McLean/Kelly, 2010) presented  a broad spectrum of examples of creative arts in research and practice. Two articles, Creative New Directions in Dietetics by Catherine Morley and Mapping Resiliency Building Bridges Toward Change an Experiential Arts-based Narrative Inquiry with Dietetics Professionals by Jacqui Gingras, Assistant Professor at the School of Nutrition at Ryerson University, and Jennifer Atkins a dietitian at Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, presented varied arts based approaches in practice.  Later that year at the Dietitians of Canada National Conference in Montreal,  I presented with a panel about the creative arts across disciplines and implications for dietetics practice and performed a brief ethnodramatic monologue which shared a client’s memory around eating with family (his brother) and his current lived experience at the resident home.  During the break-out sessions I facilitated a well attended workshop using creative arts and drama methods with a group of dietitians drawing on the powerful image of the kitchen as a significant place to access meaningful connections through visualization and memory.  Participants wrote narratives based on this embodied and preparatory exercise which they performed for group witness and reflection.

About ethnodrama

Ethnodrama is a research based art form, a type of qualitative playwriting or performed research. Johnny Saldaña, Professor of Theatre at Arizona State University School of Theatre and Film, a leader in North America in this emerging genre, has described ethnotheatre as a form which “employs the traditional craft and artistic techniques of theatre to mount for an audience a live or mediated performance event of research participants’ experiences. The ethnodrama itself is the written play script consisting of dramatized significant selections of narrative which may be derived from interview transcripts, participant observation, field notes, journal entries, personal memories….” (Saldaña, 2011 pg. 13). Dr. Norman K. Denzin, one of the world’s most distinguished authorities on qualitative research writes, “Performance becomes public pedagogy when it uses the aesthetic, the performative, to foreground the intersections of politics, institutional sites and embodied experience.” (Denzin, 2003 pg. 9). Such “dramas” are unique in that they are an embodied way of performing research while artistically provoking change, presenting issues and, at the same time, questioning the status quo through story.

The process

For the script “Who Cares?”  content was very close to verbatim whether drawn from interview transcripts, video provided or from newspaper articles, journals or emails.  But moving from collected data or transcripts to a performed story or play requires a delicate and selective creative process.  Saldana writes  “Everyday life can be quite mundane, but it is also peppered with occasional moments of excitement, tension and conflict….one of the goals of an ethnodramatist is to take the actual words of a participant and adapt them into an economic form that has aesthetic shape. ” (Saldana, 2011 pgs. 69 -70) The most challenging job for the ethnodramatist as playwright is to sensitively work with and through data and lived experience seeking themes, metaphor and turning points, shaping the essential message, crafting a factual but emotional telling that is far beyond the practical goal to inform or transfer knowledge but rather to move an audience and ultimately inspire change.

Autobiographical poetry and original song lyrics were also included in this script inspired and based on personal narratives and end-of-life or food related lived experience. For the conclusion of the ethnodrama preview, Who Cares?  I wrote and performed, for example, an autobiographical poem/story written based on my own personal experience with my mother-in-law at the end of her life in hospital.

Two Eggs Soft Boiled

I wish she could have joined us for breakfast today, but it’s too late now,

too late to have visited her more often than I did,

too late for more meat pies, Syrian bread, fatias, Kibi

with pine nuts made especially for me,

made with love in her kitchen in the small house in Espanola

so small could barely fit a table.

I remember my mother-in-law, Frances, in her hospital room

nearly time for brain surgery,

neuroblastoma cancerous, another tumour, about the size of a walnut.

She was 87 years old.

I am standing next to Frances

they are preparing her gurney,

the one that will wheel her down the hall

in a very short time,

up to the elevator that will take her to the operating room.

I don’t know what to say.

I know she always loved her food

as much as she enjoyed sharing it with us.

Afraid for her now

and afraid for me,

it’s her third cancer operation,

a warrior

double mastectomy at thirty-two,

two small children at home

two breasts removed

months of radiation and surgery

battled a reoccurrence, bowel cancer

and now this, this, brain cancer.

“You’ll be back for breakfast tomorrow morning,” I say.

“Yeah?” She turns to look at me. “What will we be having?”

“Eggs and toast with wild blueberry jam, the good jam.”

“Yes the good jam,” she smiles.

“Eggs how do you want them?” I ask.

“Boiled, make them boiled.”

“White or brown toast?” I ask.

She looks up at me.


The attendants crank up the bed, ready to transfer her to the gurney.

“Keep talking, oh keep talking, don’t stop. It’s helping,” she says.

“Oh the toast,” I say, “it’s good with butter and lots of jam, lots not just a little

and the eggs, we don’t want to overcook them.”

They are lifting her body and moving her now on to the gurney,

lying there, they are wheeling her toward the elevator.

I am standing outside the hospital room

turned toward the elevator, one last look, good bye.

The elevator doors open and they wheel her in and before I turn to go…

she leans forward, raises her hand, puts up two fingers and calls out

“Remember two eggs…soft boiled.”

Two eggs soft boiled.

Egg, symbol of nurturing, rebirth, hope

and resurrection.

This her last thought she might return

to join us for breakfast in the morning.

It will never be too late

to remember her,

the meaning of her life

the love food provides.

To give thanks here at this table

for the gifts she gave,

her loving generous presence

and these two eggs, soft boiled.

C.L. McLean excerpt from the script “Who Cares” 2015.


The script (40 pgs.) for the preview ethnodrama, “Who Cares?” was written in August 2015 and the 50 minute preview show, we referred to as “a taste of”,  took place September 23 at the Lower Denton Theatre, Acadia University.  In the audience were faculty members, physicians, spiritual care workers, dietitians, caregivers, students and community members.

The roles for the ethnodrama preview “Who Cares?” were played by skilled actors with considerable performing experience adding to the quality of the overall production and the authenticity of the performances. Paula Rockwell a graduate of the University of Toronto is an experienced and multi talented performer and vocalist who has worked with the Canadian Opera Company and  teaches Voice, Diction for Singers, Scene Studies and The Singing Actor at Acadia.  She joined the production as an actor and cast member and also composed music for an original song providing expert vocals and keyboard accompaniment for music in this ethnodrama.   Robert Seale offered a touching and deeply sensitive portrayal of a caregiving husband to a wife with Alzheimer’s Disease.   Associate Professor in the Theatre Department, he is a graduate of the National Theatre School in Montreal and has appeared in over 150 leading roles in the major theatres across Canada, and in the U.S.   I also joined the cast as an actor and the director of “Who Cares?”

Our  preview based on research addressed challenges unpaid caregivers face each day to care for their family members, from assisting and feeding a spouse with Alzheimer’s Disease, advocating for food choice at end of life,  providing for those in need balanced with the dynamics of the personal relationship and attending to a family member who is dying.  The title Who Cares? referred to those who do care, the caregivers themselves and their stories, and also challenged the prevailing cultural notions and policies regarding the aged and those (often family) feeding and supporting older persons in need. It was through these stories, these true and dramatized accounts of caregiving experience, that those unrecognized , frequently “invisible” and marginalized in their unpaid work became visible. The title also raised other questions, Who should care? How can we democratically come together in the hopes of bringing about change which could affect quality of life for those in our care today and others who will surely need care in the future? The purpose was not to  provide a recipe for change nor to dictate the methodologies for transformation but rather to begin to illuminate true stories and create spaces for possibility, innovation and critical thinking that may, even in this early phase of development, lead to eventual change and solutions around caregiving and feeding family that could ultimately improve health and quality of life for caregivers and older Canadians.

Cheryl L. McLean   is a leading international contributor to the field of creative arts in interdisciplinary practice (CAIP) and founder and publisher of The International Journal of the Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice (IJCAIP) and has edited the research books Creative Arts in Humane Medicine, Creative Arts for Community and Cultural Change and Creative Arts in Interdisciplinary Practice (Brush Education, Edmonton). She is also an educator and ethnodramatist who has presented widely as a keynote speaker at universities, medical schools and health organizations across Canada.  She worked as a Visiting Scholar at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, between July and September 2015.



Denzin N.K. (2003). Performance ethnography, critical pedagogy and the politics of culture.  (pg. 9), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

McLean, C.L. (2014). Creative arts in humane medicine, Edmonton: Brush Education Inc.

McLean, C.L., Kelly, R. (2010). Creative arts in interdisciplinary practice inquiries for hope and change. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises.

McLean, C.L. (2015). Who Cares?  An ethnodrama preview script, research based true stories of caregiving, feeding family, love and survival, (script pg. 32 – 36 ) performed Sept. 23, 2015 Lower Denton Theatre, Acadia University.

Saldaña, J. (2011). Ethnotheatre research from page to stage, (pg 13), CA: Left Coast Press.

Saldaña, J.(2011).   Ethnotheatre research from page to stage, (pg. 69 – 70), CA: Left Coast Press.

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