Ground-breaking company Operating Theatre was given life in 2001 at Newcastle University after Dr Dominic Slowie, then a senior medical tutor, saw Julia’s remarkable play Eating the Elephant. First produced in 1997, this was the first play Julia wrote about her personal experiences and, as she noted in her collection of plays Eating the Elephant (2005), ‘in many ways it was the first time I used writing as a way of making sense of my illness. In 1995 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I wrote the play the following year, almost as a discussion with myself’. The drama features the connections made between four women as they interact with doctors, nurses and in one memorable body scan scene Miranda talks to her own liver and lungs.
Understanding the potential of theatre as an important tool in medical education, particularly in the field of patient communication, Dr Slowie contacted Julia. Initially the idea was to explore relationships between health professionals and patients through creative writing and drama workshops. These workshops looked at ‘the vocabulary of pain’ and explored using an alternative vocabulary with which to describe an illness and also to come to terms with it. Interviewed by The Guardian about Operating Theatre in 2004, Julia explained: ‘Encouraging a patient to use poetry to describe their condition allows them to use metaphors to explore the issues. It’s a way of helping people to visualise themselves getting better… A good example might be to describe how you feel using a fishing vocabulary. Writing about pain using metaphors gives people a different perspective on their condition.’
Julia ran workshops with writer Carol Clewlow, then writer-in-residence at Newcastle University’s Medical School, and resulting work was showcased at Live Theatre. Due to the success of the idea, a play was commissioned and Operating Theatre was established as a company producing thought-provoking drama on issues ranging from learning disability to depression. Also interviewed by The Guardian, Dr Slowie said: ‘We want to produce theatre that is educational but that is also first-rate drama in its own right.’ Operating Theatre particularly focuses on complex emotional issues and aims to train health practitioners to be more empathetic with their patients. Dr Slowie observed:‘We get the group to work on a first-person monologue, getting them to explore what it might feel like to experience the issue for themselves.’ The monologues are then performed and discussed by the group.