5 Questions with Actress Megan Cole
By Diana Fenves, Communcations Intern

Megan Cole in Wit, Seattle Rep, 1999.

In 1999 Megan Cole starred in the Seattle Rep production of Wit, a heart-wrenching play that tells the story of a woman who has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Megan Cole drew on the wisdom of the play and began a career as a professor and travelling lecturer, sharing the ways in which acting techniques can be used to improve physician-patient communication. She returns to Seattle Rep to play "A," the aging matriarch in Edward Albee's Three Tall Women. Megan met Communications Intern Diana Fenves in the Seattle Rep green room during the second week of rehearsals to answer five questions about her career and the show.

What inspired you to go beyond appearing in Wit on stage to reach out to medical professionals and students to spread the wisdom of the play?

Megan: We took the Seattle production of Wit, which we did here in November of '99, to Houston in January 2000, and a matinee was bought out by the University of Texas in Houston Medical School. It was 800 medical and nursing students and their professors. They asked me back a month later to talk about Wit, and about why Wit is not in fact doctor-bashing, which I strongly believe. They hired me in March of 2000 as an adjunct professor of health and society to develop a course beginning that September at the medical school in Houston on using actor skills for improved physician-patient communication, which had been my idea.

Wit was such an important and transforming play to me that I wanted to continue working through it somehow. Even though that I knew that I couldn't be in probably many or any more productions of it [her last was in Austin in 2001], I didn't want to keep doing the production. I wanted to keep conveying something of the message of the play without having to be hired by somebody else. That is, to do it myself. So I worked on this new course over the summer of 2000 and went back twice that year to Houston for four to five weeks each time to work at the medical school in that course, and that led me to do other things at the medical school, including literature and medicine courses. That gave me the chance to develop single lecture/performances that I did first at the medical school in Houston, and then I started getting requests to take them to other medical schools.

What kind of techniques has theatre given you that you feel can contribute to people's capacity for sensitivity in the medical field and beyond?

Megan: Behaving 'as if,' that's an important one. It's the fundamental, for me, the fundamental actor skill. Which is to behave "as if" I were—who I understand the character to be. If I want to be a kind and helpful person, I behave as if I were a kind and helpful person. So, that the behavior springs from a deep interior space without having to think about the details. If you can come from a pre-disposition, an interior reality to helpful and kind and cheerful, then it happens organically. That's the basic actor skill.

So, for example, in Three Tall Women in the first act, I'm playing a 92 year-old woman who has a degree of dementia. I'm neither, I'm happy to say, 92, and I'm only marginally demented, not as much as the woman in the play is, so I ask myself what if, what if, I were a woman with these conditions? I imagine them, based on my own experience, and then I behave as if I were that woman. And, it's very simple and very profound.

Status issues. We used status maybe less so in the theater, but we use them. To understand, and all of this by the way, is about awareness in which these things are operating, status is recognizing if there's a difference in power between the two participants in a communication event. There's certainly a difference in a medical setting, which we feel as patients. Anybody who's a patient particularly, if you're, say, in a hospital or having a gynecological check-up and in a hospital gown, and the doctor comes in wearing a white coat and a stethoscope, and there's an immediate difference in status. Communication is likely to be a little easier if the medical practitioner recognizes that difference and decides if he or she wants to do anything about it.

You began your work in 2000. Over the last ten years have you noticed a change in how people think and talk about issues surrounding end-of-life care?

Megan: In our society? Yes. It's, I'm happy to say, becoming a topic that is much more in the public discourse than it used to be. It's got a long way to go. There is, yes, a considerably more open discussion about the challenges of getting older and coming to or near the end of life that used to be off-limits. I have noticed a big change. I say we're not there, but I think it's mirroring the arc of talking about cancer. When I was growing up thirty years ago, cancer was not talked about, it was not mentioned, it was seen as a problem, as some kind of shameful thing. Death and dying occupies something of the same space. That it's something we don't really want to look at, but there's an increasing awareness that when we do, when we are brave enough to look at it, then we can improve the days that we are alive because we live with the recognition that we’re not immortal.

In Three Tall Women, "A" is also facing challenges of illness and mortality. Do you think that this play will also contribute to your work?

Megan: Oh yes, yes. We're only in our second week of rehearsal, and I'm experiencing the connection between the work that we're talking about and this particular play. She ["A"] is a woman who is absolutely looking back at her life and ahead very briefly to her imminent death. We feel that it's only in this very short time of our second act that she stops and looks back at her former selves and looks at how she's lived her life, to evaluate how she's lived and if there are things that she hasn't learned. And yes, she learns that there are many mistakes, many mistakes. And that in the last couple of her moments...there's a shift, there is an acceptance. An acceptance of the former selves and an acceptance what is now, as the result of those former selves, an acceptance of the imminence of death, and a kind of peace that she has never experienced before. And the hope is this is one major thing that our audiences will take away, that it's why we come to the theatre. That it's to see other people's lives, see how they live and have lived, what lessons they've learned, what mistakes they've made, so that we can reflect now, at our age, and say, 'How does this apply to me?' Am I making some of those same mistakes? Am I learning some of those lessons?' Maybe so, in which case, I have a lot more time than "A" does. So I've got to adjust. That's one major reason that we come to the theatre.

What do you think the world of Albee's Three Tall Women tells us about the experience of aging?

Megan: You should interview me two weeks from now at the end of our rehearsals—I'm just coming into that!

I think he tells us at least two major things. One is that it's hell. That it is as, so many people that I know who are aging say, 'Well it's really hard, it's really hard being old," and when we're young we think, 'Yeah, yeah, I know.' But it really is. And I'm just at the beginning of that. That awareness and that process, which for me (because I think that I'll live to be a hundred, whether I want to or not), is still really many years to come. But I'm starting to experience it. Aging is not for sissies.

The other thing is that we can learn from our mistakes. That there is a peace, a peacefulness, that can come as we age. When were able to discard the concerns that just swamped us when we were younger and focus more on what's really important. Now I'm making the play sound as if that's its point. That is really not its point. This is not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. It's much darker than I'm saying. But I do think that those two, well certainly the first one is there, that getting old is a bitch. And I'm pretty sure that the second one is there. Because my actor's objective, at the moment—we're only ten days into it—is for the entire second act, is to review my life and look at what it has been and whether I am going to rest. And I think that "A" does, in fact, learn.