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Facing a new role

The day after her 76th birthday, actress Shirley Patton was sitting in her hilltop home in Ashland and talking calmly and cheerfully about today's gig: Improvising conversations about impending death.

Patton, who joined the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1958, and other former and current OSF actors will perform skits on one of life's toughest discussions at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. today. The event is part of a free public forum series offered in Medford by Choosing Options, Honoring Options, a group facilitating end-of-life conversations through seminars, workshops and online resources.

The actors will depict family members in different scenarios, from those who have had a detailed discussion about a loved one's last wishes to those who have avoided the topic and are now forced to make quick decisions about treatments, care and pain management.

Program organizers say that the majority of patients facing death lack the ability to decide for themselves. In these circumstances, a person's last days resemble a drama in which there is no script and family members are not sure of their role.

Although Patton is experiencing her customary pre-performance butterflies, the topic itself doesn't make her nervous.

"It is not foreign territory," she says, while sitting on her living room sofa Wednesday morning.

She was the "beneficiary," she says, of frank discussions about end-of-life care with her mother, Belle Douglass, who passed away at age 99 in 2009, and Patton's husband, Bill, who died in their home from incurable cancer at age 83 in 2011.

"We were gifted to have had the time to talk about and resolve such issues as the extent of heroic measures to take," says Shirley Patton, who met her husband in 1958, when he was the general manager of OSF.

He led from behind the scenes for 42 years as she performed on stage as Ophelia in "Hamlet," Hermia in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and other characters for 30 years. Together, they acted in A.R. Gurney's play "Love Letters."

When she touches old photographs of him in a book about the festival, she says quietly, "That's my Bill."

Because of their previous talks, she felt confident when decisions about his care needed to be made.

"We were very open about end-of-life conversations because we had a rich history of sharing, no matter the subject," says Patton. "We enjoyed listening to each other and hearing each other's stories."

She has prepared a Oregon Advance Directive herself and emphasizes that "none of the decisions are locked in concrete."

She shrugs, a nonverbal way of saying, "Who can predict what will happen?"

She says she can't predict what will be said while improvising on stage today at the Smullin Center at Rogue Regional Medical Center. She has only met once to talk about this part with other volunteer actors: Peter Quince and Eve Smyth, who will portray her children in the 2 p.m. presentation, and Catherine Coulson and Anthony Heald, who will perform with her at 7 p.m.

She pats her heart, thinking about those butterflies. Then she leans forward as if to reveal a secret.

"I do know," she says, "that the other actors will be wonderful."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.