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Film production, medical education unite in
"The Passageway"

A project by students, for students, offers important insights into end-of-life issues

Tracy Marx, associate professor of family medicine, instructs cast members of the student-produced film, “The Passageway,” on correct medical procedures.
Photo by Brock Fowler, Ohio University School of Media Arts and Studies


By Suzanne McMillen

Medical education, theater and filmmaking merged via an Ohio University communication class to deal with the sensitive issue of the pending death of a family member.

The feature-length production of “The Passageway,” by this year’s Media Arts and Studies 419 class, is based on the 2006 play “Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver” by Merri Biechler, an assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM) and an adjunct faculty member in the School of Theater. Biechler wrote the play when she was a student earning her Masters of Fine Arts in Playwriting. At the same time, she was also working at OU-COM as a graduate assistant in the Office of Academic Affairs and teaching in the School of Theater.

Merri Biechler, author of the play  “Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver,” introduces her work during a 2007 reading for OU-COM students.
Photo by John Sattler, OU-COM


 The film will be presented to the public for the first time on Sunday,
June 5, at Templeton Blackburn Memorial Auditorium at 2 p.m. 

The film and play follow the story of Mae, a struggling young actress thrown into a caregiver role when both of her parents die from cancer. After her kind, peacemaker mother’s death, Mae struggles to care for her more difficult father while also trying to deal with an uncompassionate doctor. Throughout the story she is constantly trying to find the middle ground with her sci-fi obsessed father and also come to terms with the death of her mother.

Tracy Marx, D.O. (’92),  an associate professor of family medicine who runs the addiction, pain, and palliative care block at OU-COM,  worked with Biechler to develop the play as a means of teaching. For the last five years, Marx has incorporated script readings of the play as part of the palliative care curriculum for her second year medical students.

“These students are going to be caring for people who are dying and in caregiver situations,” Marx said.  “Pieces like this give a glimpse of what it’s like to be in that role and helps them relate better to their patients, relate better to the families; there’s a whole host of ways this will change their perceptions and their knowledge.”

 “We hit it off because I was interested in what she was doing and she was interested in what I was doing,” Biechler said. “She’s always been interested in finding alternative ways of teaching this sort of very sensitive subject; it’s something that doesn’t really translate in PowerPoint.”

For Biechler, the play was a way for her to write about her own experience as a caregiver. Biechler knew “what it feels like to go from no knowledge to 24/7 immersion where you’re trying to learn a new language, trying to navigate the healthcare system, trying to do the best by your loved ones and when the feelings of inadequacy are quite large.” 

In addition to many script readings across the country, the play won the 2007 Jane Chambers Student Playwriting Award and has received recognition from organizations like the American Cancer Society.

Frederick Lewis, associate professor and sequence head of video production at Ohio University’s School of Media Arts and Studies, chose this play for his class to write, film, and edit as their film project.

 “I’ve seen the play three times in the last five years and I like the message of the piece and how it teaches this sensitive medical subject to students,” said Lewis. “So I think it’s a great public service and learning experience for the students, and I hope the end result is that it spreads the message of Merri’s play.”

Developing “The Passageway” required the collaboration of a traditional cast and crew and those who have professional and personal medical experience with end-of-life issues.

The group of undergraduate students directed by Teresa Strebler and David Jeffries worked for months writing and filming the movie, even working through spring break to finish on time. To ensure the quality of the film, the students collaborated with Biechler on script writing and casting, and Marx provided consultation for the medical aspects of film.

The students taught her the language of film, Marx said, as she worked with them to coordinate the filming of hospital sequences and made sure all the medical information and equipment was accurate throughout the production.

 “The students were incredibly professional and eager learners,” she said. “They were all so dedicated and it was phenomenal to be able to witness that sort of energy.”  

Although some of the story was changed in the transition from play to movie, the adaptation is very close to the original, and there are parts that Biechler said are very close to actual conversations she had with her father before he died. She described one memorable moment when, “during one of the very last days of filming I went to the set and got to see one of the last conversations I had with my dad being filmed. I was just, ‘wow,’ and it was incredible because I think my mom and dad are going to be really happy with what their legacy is going to be with this play and with this film.”

Joking that it is “un-American” to die, Biechler explains that people don’t talk about death usually because we are afraid of it. 

“I think we feel that if we don’t talk about it, it might not happen. So we end up making these very, very important decisions under duress and emotional pain, when if we could have the foresight to talk about these things when our loved ones are healthy it would be easier later,” Biechler said.  

The film will help expand on the reach of the original play, Marx said. In addition to the continued script readings, Marx wants to distribute free copies of the film to other educators and develop an online interactive guide with shots from the movie to better facilitate conversation.  

“This story was written when Merri was a student,” said Marx. “Now it’s being filmed and produced by students, for students. So, it’s come full circle for me, and it has been a joy to watch and be involved with it.”  

To learn more about the filming of “The Passageway” and view a trailer, visit the website at

  Office of Communication
Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine
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Last updated: 01/28/2016