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Unique opportunity: Professor performs for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It’s not often an actor is offered a role in a Pulitzer Prize-winning play – even more rare to have the play’s author sitting in the audience.

John McCabe-Juhnke, Bethel College professor of communication arts, had just such an opportunity in early February when a former student, Joy Goldsmith, invited him to play Dr. Harvey Kelekian in a staged reading of Margaret Edson’s play Wit.

Goldsmith, chair of the Department of Communication at Young Harris (Ga.) College, organized a symposium on the performance of palliative care, the topic of her book Communication as Comfort: Multiple Voices in Palliative Care (Routledge, 2008). Young Harris is about 90 miles from Atlanta, home of Wit author Margaret Edson, who was part of the symposium.

The symposium brought together performers, scholars, health professionals and cancer survivors to explore issues surrounding doctor-patient relationships in treating advanced-stage cancers, also a central theme of Wit. The performance took place Feb. 2.

Annette Thornton, former Bethel College choreographer and theater professor who is now director of musical theater at Central Michigan University, played the leading role of Vivian Bearing, a professor of English dying of ovarian cancer. McCabe-Juhnke played her primary physician, Dr. Kelekian.

“Joy wanted professionals to read the adult roles,” McCabe-Juhnke says. “I think the idea was for Joy to gather people from her past who meant something to her. The other roles were read by Young Harris students, with an older faculty member taking the role of Vivian’s mentor-professor.”

As to having the playwright present, McCabe-Juhnke says, “At some point, you stop thinking about ‘the star’ in the audience, and just do your job. It was great to have Maggie Edson there, to reflect on the play and our performance. She was very enthusiastic about this reading.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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