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Complexities in interdisciplinary community engagement projects: some reflections and lessons from an applied drama and theatre project in diabetes care


There is a growing interest in using drama techniques and theatrical performance to disseminate health information to lay audiences as part of community engagement projects. This process can be challenging for a number of reasons, however. In this paper, we describe the process and pitfalls of an interdisciplinary project involving the development and performance of a play about diabetes mellitus. The play formed part of a long-term, three-way community engagement project between social science, applied drama and a diabetes clinic in South Africa. Building on a framework derived from a number of applied drama methods, we elicited narratives from key ‘storytellers’ that were developed and embodied by actors in a new performance called Blood Sugars. Creating this play provided insight into working in an interdisciplinary space and highlighted the importance of establishing shared goals and joint ownership of the project right from the outset. This was without doubt a challenging project and the complexities of finding common ground across three disciplines are not to be underestimated. In this paper, we explore the collaboration and its challenges, drawing on the framework of complexity theory. In particular, we examine the layers of complexity that emerged as a result of the interdisciplinary nature of the project and the demands of balancing the authenticity of the stories with the perceived requirements of health messaging. We consider the methodological, conceptual and ethical challenges of this type of research, and discuss some recommendations for teams taking on similar complex multidisciplinary research and intervention projects.

  • arts in health/arts and health
  • social science
  • drama
  • endocrinology including diabetes

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request. Deidentified participant data are stored with the Health Communication Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand. Reuse is permitted for purposes of secondary analysis, with explicit permission from the HCRU Director Professor Jennifer Watermeyer.

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