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Grad. student gives voice to those battling cancer

By Christina Casano
On February 4, 2013

A creative thesis is nothing new to a master's candidate in the theatre program at Miami University. In Sarah Senff's case this meant reaching outside the boundaries of campus life and connecting to the community in the Oxford area.

In the last two weeks, Senff gave her final two performances of My Left Breast by Susan Miller. The show deals with the experiences women have when dealing with cancer and their lives after.

Senff had a social purpose in doing her research and subsequent performance.

"I want [my work] to restore the voice to people who have lost it due to cancer," Senff said.

The My Left Breast performances were dedicated to three women in her own life who battled cancer, one of whom is in remission and just got married.

"She got married bald in a tiara," Senff said. "She's an amazing person."

Her work was influenced by what is called community-based theatre. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong, Senff's thesis adviser, often works and teaches community-based theatre. According to Armstrong, a boiled-down definition of community-based theatre is theatre of, by and for a particular community, telling our own stories to each other.

"It's a way of bringing the audience into it," Armstrong said. "They bring their own experiences to the story that's being told."

Senff used these techniques by pairing her 45-minute performance with a workshop directly following.

"The play is a way to get people into a room in order to start the discussion on how people perceive breast cancer culture," Senff said.

One concern with doing My Left Breast in a college campus context was the question of whether or not students at this stage in their lives could relate.

"The workshop brings [cancer experiences] into people's lives," Armstrong said. "We realized that because the show is also about loss this is a time when people are experiencing changes in their lives, including illness and loss."

Senff worked to expand the reach of her show in order to make it an effective performance. She also reached out to a number of regional advocacy groups to bring in different people in the area with a range of experiences.

Using community-based theatre practices and techniques, Senff wanted to bring to people's attention the American idea of having cancer and being a survivor. Her purpose is to bring awareness about how not all cancer experiences are the same, or as positive as is portrayed.

"There's a tyranny of optimism with the pink ribbon movement," Senff said. "Not all women's stories are linear and those women are silenced."

Senff's show may be over, but she hopes the message will have lasting effects.

"It's important to be aware of [breast cancer] and get screened, but it's also important to understand all women's stories," Senff said. "I'd like people to think about breast cancer awareness month and the pink ribbon movement, and to be aware of both the positives and negatives and how we move forward."

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