Duluth pharmacy professor helps U of M students explore medicine through theater

The class aims to spark critical thinking, which can then be molded into a performance created by the students.

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A Duluth pharmacy professor has helped create a class at the University of Minnesota that explores the relationship between medicine and patients through the performing arts.

Paul Ranelli, a professor of social pharmacy at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy’s Duluth campus, teamed up with theater professors Sonja Kuftinec and Luverne Seifert at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota to imagine the structure for the semesterlong Creative Collaborative class.

Because 80% of people take medicine of some sort, Ranelli wanted to find a way to portray and explore the common experience through visual arts. After many hours spent researching with librarians, they developed a syllabus centered on “pharmakon” — a philosophical idea about the multi-faceted use of medicine and its history.

“Ultimately we hit upon this idea of pharmakon,” Kuftinec said. “Pharmakon is a really interesting term in relationship to both medicine and theater because it means medicine or healing, as well as poison and scapegoat.”


Paul Ranelli
Paul Ranelli (Photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota)

The class is held in a hybrid in-person and online format because of the pandemic, which allows Ranelli to join as a guest instructor from Duluth through Zoom. Its structure is fairly abstract, meant to inspire discussion and research about a range of topics, including representations of healing and poison in Greek tragedy, the history and symbolism of pharmacy, cultural and societal acceptance of medicines, the use of natural and prescription medicine, and personal experiences of students.

But while the course’s journey, or “trip,” covers broad and complex topics, the objectives are slightly easier to comprehend. The theater students, who are mostly juniors and seniors, are not asked to memorize a script and perform it. Instead, they are asked to take the semesterlong research and compile the findings into a performance to pass the research on to the audience.

“It’s communicating about science,” Ranelli said. “It’s a great method to enlighten people and not have to bury their nose in a textbook to learn something and to discuss it after it’s over.”

Seifert has experience working with science researchers to help them get their findings across in a clear and concise way. He has worked with many academics so they can portray their research in an easily understood way that will help them secure funding and explain the material’s significance.

As a preclass interview, students were asked to imagine a drug to heal something in the world. A drug to revert to past ages you’ve lived. A drug that gives you a heightened sense of awareness and understanding of the world around you.

As the student explained what their drug did, they were asked to imagine how the drug is taken. Is it ingested? Smoked? Absorbed through skin? Then: what are the side effects or dark sides of the drug? It turns out going back to age 12 also brings back some intense emotions that weren’t as fun as you remembered. Coming out of a heightened awareness of the world around you can leave you longing to understand more.


“They’re really super creative and interesting, and it gave us a lot of insight into how the students were understanding drugs as medications and where they imagine pain living,” Kuftinec said. “That’s become a real thread throughout the length of the course — where pain lives in us and outside of us and between us, and how can we heal it systematically.”

Siefert and Kuftinec said the structure of the class brings everyone together to collaborate as students — even the professors.

“There’s the things that we bring in, there’s the things they bring in, and now we’re at the end trying to figure out how we make some kind of narrative out of all these little investigations we engaged in,” Kuftinec said.

Students were able to share their personal experiences with drugs, whether used as a form of control — like anti-anxiety, birth control or pain medicine — or for recreational use.

But even though most students have had some kind of experience with drugs, they aren’t necessarily pharmacy experts. Ranelli has introduced them to pharmacy topics like the Bowl of Hygeia, the ancient symbol of pharmacy based on the Greek goddess of health and hygiene. It signifies poison from a snake and the bowl to create a cure. Many early ideas about health centered on the idea that illnesses were punishments from the gods, Ranelli said.

Theater also has strong Greek roots, like the ancient Greek tragedies that frequently explored intoxication and poison. Amber Frederick, a junior theater and social justice major from Mankato, Minnesota, said one of their favorite aspects of the class has been learning about those historical connections.

“I think this connection of medicine and ritual — all of those Greek notions — has been really interesting, especially having studied some of those connections from Greek theater,” Frederick said.


Ranelli also had students explore how pharmacy has been portrayed in popular culture and theatrical representations of health care. With the awareness that medicine can be both helpful and harmful, the class has sparked discussions about how the health care system operates in modern society, including ways it can be oppressive or restrictive.

For example, student Emily Vaillancourt completed a project about the accessibility of birth control to women over the decades. The series of minute-long videos shows how as the years pass, pharmacies and medical practices change, but it remains more difficult for women to get birth control than it is for men to get condoms.


Frederick said because of the pandemic, the online aspect of the class has added to the learning environment because they were able to have guest instructors and speakers from outside the Twin Cities area, including Ranelli.

The semester will end with a final performance at the beginning of May, which will incorporate both a virtual and in-person hybrid performance, similar to the hybrid structure of the COVID-19-era class.

The performance will feature a fair amount of audience engagement and aims to spark questions about how health care and medicine could change to help more people, Frederick said.

‘“It’s this kind of journey through healing from the audience’s perspective,” Frederick said.

Ranelli said the course has been a mind-opening experience, and he hopes the show leaves the audience thinking, “Hmm, I never thought of it that way before.” He said he would love for the class or a similar concept to be available at the University of Minnesota Duluth someday.

“Right now, we’re trying to get through this semester,” Ranelli said.

As the semester wraps and the class prepares for the final performance, Seifert feels the students have learned how to interpret research and solve problems by working at communicating.

“Our students are not just interpreters of other people’s work, they’re creators,” Seifert said. “I feel really good about them going into the world in whatever they do, whether or not it be theater. They’re going to be a formidable force in changing the world and they have the tools to be able to do that.”

Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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