Sonja Perryman once had a successful career as an actress doing live theater and television commercials. Jill Donnelly did sketch and improvisational comedy on stage, in theaters and on television in New York and L.A. As a child, Adam Carl Cohen used his dad’s video camera to make films starring crude “claymation” figures he created.
While all three started out walking different paths in life and using different skillsets in the arts, they found their way to the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health where they are now applying the skills they honed as an actor, comedienne and filmmaker to promote positive health behaviors.
For a profession in which successfully communicating health messages to diverse populations is essential, Perryman and other Fielding students who possess creative talents in the arts are finding that their skills are not only transferrable, but much in demand in the public health field.
“Public health has made tremendous advances over the years, but to take the next leap, we have to get much better at communicating with people in ways that are meaningful to them,” said Sandra de Castro Buffington, founding director of the Fielding School’s Global Media Center for Social Impact (GMI). The center focuses on increasing awareness of and action on important health issues by harnessing the storytelling power of television, film and new media through collaborations with writers, directors and producers.
“When we have students who are grounded in public health principles but who also have skills that enable them to engage and entertain — that’s a winning combination,” she said.
Donnelly didn’t realize the power of that combination when she decided to redirect a thriving career as a comedienne to public health. In fact, she thought she should hide her previous life as a member of Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York and Los Angeles and a comic on “Funny or Die” and CollegeHumor, among other websites and TV shows.
She still loved comedy. “It was exciting to me because, particularly with improv and sketch, you could be creative and use your brain as well as your performance ability.” But there was a downside she couldn’t ignore. “The lifestyle — the unsteady income, the need for self-promotion, the lack of control over your own career path — made me unhappy.”
Oddly enough, public health had always interested Donnelly — she even worked briefly as a Medicare patient advocate. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, it seemed like an exciting time to make the change. So Donnelly enrolled at the Fielding School.
During a summer internship at L.A. Care Health Plan after her first year in the Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) program, Donnelly began to realize that her comedic and performing skills could be an asset in her new career.
“I felt sort of sheepish about it, but the people at L.A. Care loved it,” she said. “I was focused, but I could also bring some levity, and they valued that. Improv and sketch comedy are extremely team-driven. In public health, where you need to work well in teams, be flexible and build off of other people’s ideas, that orientation is very useful.”
A former actress and a Fielding graduate student, Perryman made a similar discovery. Raised by a single father, Perryman studied acting at NYU.
After earning her degree, Perryman had no trouble finding work on stage and in commercials. “I was making a good living, and I was happy,” she recalled. But that changed the day Perryman was notified that her father, Austin, had taken ill.
Suffering from Type 2 diabetes, he was hospitalized with severe sepsis, a life-threatening complication traced to a minor wound that never properly healed. Several weeks later, he was dead. And Perryman knew it could all have been prevented.
After her father’s death, acting began to feel empty to Perryman; she yearned instead for a career that would honor her father and his commitment to service. Quite by accident, she discovered public health when she accepted a position teaching nutrition to fourth and fifth graders in South Los Angeles.
“The minute I stepped into that classroom, I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “If I could get children in underserved areas to eat healthy and exercise for life so that they never got type 2 diabetes, that would be my life’s work.”
She engaged her students in acting games as a way to promote the value of healthy eating. “It helped get them excited about the topic,” said Perryman. “I didn’t have to just tell them why they should care about nutrition. We could explore it together through theater.”
This is not the first time UCLA has connected with professionals from the entertainment industry to solidify the campus’s commitment to education and public service.
The School of Theater, Film and Television, for example, has partnered with Participant Media, a global entertainment company that focuses on feature film, television, publishing and digital content that inspires social change, to support the work of outstanding graduate students in directing, writing and producing with a focus on humanistic storytelling and social responsibility.
In another corner of the campus, the UCLA Burkle Global Impact Initiative is promoting connections between entertainment industry and senior experts from organizations like the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the World Bank and the World Health Organization to raise public awareness of global policy, humanitarian and advocacy issues through television and film.
At the Fielding School, those who come from the entertainment industry realize the enormity of their task in trying to communicate a message about health to the public.
“In public health we often compete with major marketing companies with huge budgets that know how to tell a story and are promoting exactly what we’re against,” said Cohen, a Fielding School doctoral student who creates films aimed at improving health behaviors. One of his works is an animated short called “What in the Health Is Public Health,” which introduces the profession to those outside it.
“We have the facts and the science, but we don’t have the artistic ability or marketing savvy to effectively improve health behaviors,” said the health educator/filmmaker, who considered his art nothing more than a hobby when he began his undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley.
Cohen started as a math major before stumbling upon public health — an introductory course on the topic happened to fit into the right time slot in his schedule. After earning his M.P.H. at the Fielding School, Cohen was applying to the school’s Ph.D. program when it occurred to him that he might be able to intertwine his hobby with his career.
Today, Cohen points out that in the new media environment — with vastly cheaper production costs and the ability to post content online — exorbitant budgets that once worked against getting public health messages out are no longer as much of a barrier.
“We now have the tools to reach people that easily rival marketing campaigns produced by mainstream media,” said Cohen, who hopes to use digital media storytelling to reach his audience. “We need to find ways to cut through the campaign clutter and tell stories that people want to hear — stories that also happen to promote positive health behaviors.”