How artists can help doctors conquer dangerous lifestyle diseases

22 March 2018
In the fight against obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, art can reach the public with messages health professionals find hard to convey, writes Alana Valentine, writer-in-residence at the Charles Perkins Centre.
Playwright Alana Valentine

Playwright Alana Valentine is a writer-in-residence at the Charles Perkins Centre.


The first time I went into the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, for my interview as a candidate for the writer-in-residence fellowship, I walked across the astonishing open foyer and looked up. Above me the white waves of the internal walls wriggled like strips of tagliatelle pasta in a pot of boiling water.

I got into the glass lift and, as I ascended, I could see into every level of the workplace – the laboratories on the middle floors, meetings in spaces flooded with natural light and, looking down, a soaring perspective on the ground floor – where students, scientists and visitors to the clinic intersected.

The project I valorised to the selection committee, including the scheme's generous patron, Judy Harris, and the centre's Academic Director, Professor Stephen Simpson, was a play called Dr Cassandra. It is, in essence, a pitch to make the internal workings of people in this world‑class science facility as metaphorically transparent as the centre’s architecture makes the interactions of their professional lives.

Confronting the many ways in which scientific truth is being derogated and politicised, and using the Greek myth of Cassandra, I wanted to spend a year digging for the mettle that allows nutrition scientists to survive – professionally and psychologically – as prophetic thinkers in a 21st century global community. These scientists are working in a world where empirical truth is valued less and less, and obesity continues to increase, especially among children, burdening them and our communities with health, fertility and productivity legacies on a truly frightening scale.

Actors Leah Baulch and Geraldine Turner in a production of Alana Valentine's play, MP.

Actors Leah Baulch and Geraldine Turner in a production of Alana Valentine's play, MP. Photo: Street Theatre, Canberra

Having been awarded the fellowship, along with my remarkable co-recipient, novelist Mireille Juchau, I have spent time at the centre investigating how the many scientists who work here are meeting the challenge to communicate their innovations and findings in the public sphere. I have attended lectures about the use of social networks to foster behavioural changes for better health, the benefits of intermittent and periodic energy restriction, the politics of obesity, and the ecological implications of obesity-related disease on the planet.

I have routinely been crippled with disbelief at the appalling statistics on the incidence of heart attacks in younger and younger children, of epidemic tooth removal in children, and of morbid obesity in global populations. I have been inspired by the courage of so many scientists who are prepared to be alert to the economic imperatives of the food industry and the complicity of governments.

There have been lectures and conversations that made my head swim with the enormity of the problems, and interviews and interactions that made me weep at the ways in which some scientists have been harassed, bullied, shamed and patronised when they seek to present unpopular or challenging findings.

In October 2017, I found myself in the foyer of the Adelaide Convention Centre, champagne glass in hand, waiting to go in to dinner with a conference full of bariatric surgeons, health promotion professionals and obesity scientists. I didn’t know any of them.

Professor Brian Oldfield, coordinator of the joint meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Obesity Society, the Obesity Surgery Society of Australia and New Zealand, and the Asia Oceania Association of Studies for Obesity, had asked me to make a presentation at the final session of the conference. “We want a big finish,” Professor Oldfield had said to me on the phone.

I polished off the champagne in two gulps, excruciatingly aware that I had spent the day in sessions with health professionals who quite literally collect and study data on how many glasses of champagne a person might consume standing in a foyer, knowing no-one, and how much exponentially more they may drink in such an alienating social situation.

I have routinely been crippled with disbelief at the appalling statistics on the incidence of heart attacks in younger and younger children.
Alana Valentine, Charles Perkins Centre writer-in-residence

As an artist, my obligation and indeed my creative ambition is to present these scientists as characters who are so dimensional – so like the intelligent, contrary, inconsistent, noble, beautiful people who will sit in an audience and watch the stage play I will write – that they cannot help but be affected and moved. So I will not resile from drawing them as both sincere and paradoxical, both honourable and competitive, both egotistical and selfless.

But I will hope, as has been the case in the past with the many other communities I have written plays about, that this community will enjoy seeing itself reflected and celebrated on the public stage.

At dinner, I sit with two experienced bariatric surgeons from New Zealand, one of whom has extensively mentored the other but neither of whom has seen each other for many years. They talk about sport and politics as well as surgery, obesity and the changing medical profession.

Certainly I learn a lot of facts but in the warmth of the friendship and collegiality of the older man with the younger, I see generational love and tension that is about much more than medicine.

I work my way around the room, meeting professionals in food advertising analysis, in diabetes research, teaching young adults to cook their own meals, in research science and in clinical contexts.

Next day, at the final session of the conference, I perform excerpts of a work-in-progress play called Made to Measure. Reading on stage with me is a bariatric surgeon and an endocrinologist. Both of them are astonishingly good actors and the crowd that has waited to watch their professional colleagues strut their thespian chops is warmly receptive.

There is laughter, there are profound silences, and most of all there is enthusiasm for the possibilities of the arts to communicate and confront the public with the messages doctors and others find hard to convey.

“So much of what I deal with is about the vagaries of human nature,” says one doctor to me afterwards, “and that’s really your territory, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I reply. “Yes, it really is.”

Alana Valentine's new book, Bowerbird: The Art of Making Theatre Drawn from Life, published by Currency Press, is out now. Find out more about her work here.

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