On May 19th, The United Nations Papua New Guinea hosted a press conference featuring Dr. Zoanne Clack who was visiting the writers, producers, and actors of PMC’s two radio drama series in Papua New Guinea (PNG) as part of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals Radio Campaign. Zoanne, who is a Co-Executive Producer and Writer for Grey’s Anatomy, was joined by Mr. David MacLachlan-Karr, UN Resident Coordinator in Papua New Guinea, and Ms. Betty Oala, PMC Papua New Guinea (PMC-PNG) Project Director. The three discussed Zoanne’s visit and also answered questions about PMC-PNG’s new and exciting set of dramas: Echoes of Change and Nau em Taim, both of which use highly entertaining and culturally-sensitive storylines to tackle tough issues like domestic violence, environmental conservation, maternal and child health, and HIV/AIDS to directly empower women, men, youth, and entire PNG communities. Mr. MacLachaln-Karr described the radio campaign as a way to inform remote and rural populations about what the Millennium Development Goals mean for them, but more importantly, he suggested that with the aid of these campaigns “they will demand from their elected representatives in government that the government invest more in the health and education services in this country, for the benefit of all Papua New Guineans.”
In support of this objective, Zoanne was visiting PNG to work with the writers and actors of PMC’s programs and, as put by Project Director Oala, “add that bit of spice in their writing.” Zoanne’s advice on how to keep the dramas entertaining and meaningful went far beyond storylines, characters, and health facts. She admitted: “they have wonderful stories already, so I’m basically trying to deepen the writing and have it come from a different place…it’s not just all social issues and facts and figures and what I learned intellectually. It’s how to bring the humanity into the story.”
Her work with the creative team ranged from critiques of scripts and overviews of health issues to improvisation activities that forced actors and writers to be in the moment. Zoanne highlighted that these sorts of activities reminded writers of how to create real emotion in real time, just as they must do to keep the audience engaged in their stories. Zoanne’s own writing stems from her experience both as a trained public health specialist with the CDC, an emergency room doctor, and a television writer. Switching from the medicine to entertainment, Zoanne admits that people question why she has turned from saving lives directly to writing for a television show. But she cites that entertainment television has incredible potential for effecting social change. Contrasting with her ability to only reach a limited number of people in one shift in the ER, Clack says she can reach millions on one issue by writing it into a single episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and that power to be a catalyst for change is “an amazing responsibility and chance.”
Her exuberance for social change through entertainment was equally matched by the PMC team’s enthusiasm for having a Hollywood writer visit the PNG program. In contrast to Hollywood, Zoanne noticed one marked distinction. “It’s been a really interesting experience,” she said, “to come from Hollywood where people study for years and years [to act], and to have it just come from the soul here. I mean, there are some trained people here, but people are doing [this program] because they want to do it and because it’s important and because it’s their people. And so that’s just a beautiful thing. It’s not about money and it’s not about power.”
This experience has been much more than a one-way mentoring and advising project. As reporters filled the press conference with questions about how the show would address sensitive issues like contraception and maternal health, one also asked Zoanne if she would be taking her experience with PMC-PNG and putting it into the stories she will write in the future. The answer: “Absolutely.”
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