The Cancer Monologue Project: Finding a Lifeline Amidst Illness and Pain

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The 30 contributors to The Cancer Monologue Project, an upcoming October publication from MacAdam/Cage, had been neither writers nor performers. They were patients. Cancer patients at varying levels of treatment, remission, or recovery, were drawn together by actors Tanya Taylor and Pamela Thompson to participate in free workshops for those who have experienced cancer, HIV, and AIDS.

Taylor and Thompson, who together run the Life Monologue Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico, teach participants to use personal stories to create original theater. Through funding from the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission, which began in 2001, the workshops have been offered free to citizens of Santa Fe living with those diseases. Included in the book are participants' monologues and photographs by Dorie Hagler, who made individual portraits of participants in their own environments.

The book is edited by Taylor and Thompson and has a forward by Joanna Bull, the founder of Gilda's Club, a national program that offers support, networking groups, and other services for people with cancer and their families. Gilda's Club is named for Gilda Radner, with whom Bull worked as a cancer psychotherapist during the comedian's illness.

From The Cancer Monologue Project: Jennie Reasoner-Wagner, writing about her pre-surgical experience: "Last night I made little notes on yellow Post-its and stuck them on my right breast just before I was wheeled into the operating room. One said, 'Please use sharp, clean instruments.' … I wanted them to notice how brave and funny I was. How fearless I was."

According to Taylor, the 10-minute monologues are created in a two-weekend workshop, which culminates in a public performance at a theater. In a chapter in The Cancer Monologue Project, Taylor describes the process. When the participants arrive, "emotionally, they usually range from somewhat nervous to utterly terrified…. We ask them to put aside any preconceptions about what they can and cannot do. Each of them has walked into this room with everything they need to create a monologue. Pamela and I believe that each person has an incredible story within them. We simply give people the tools to let the story come out."

The Cancer Monologue Project includes contributions from all the participants in the Project's first three sessions. Each one performed the monologue to an audience of both friends and strangers. The short pieces do not read like stand-up comedy routines, nor are they stand-up misery. Autobiographical information -- such as age, occupation, or family status -- is not always mentioned. No chronology is offered, nor is the outcome known.

Thompson, in an interview with BTW, said that many people have never shared their feelings openly with anyone, including close friends and families. The writings are funny and heartbreaking; some manage to be both at once. They are all surprisingly honest, sometimes challenging our conceptions about cancer.

From The Cancer Monologue Project: Pamela Avis writing about her terminally ill sister: "I remarked that I was glad she'd been able to rest after the hell she'd just been through. She turned to me, her face hard, and she said, 'How dare you judge my life -- you don't know anything about my life. My life hasn't been hell -- Everybody is always judging me, and I am sick of it.'"

Thompson noted that "in many families, we don't talk about things. A lot of people don't know how to talk about cancer, including people in the medical profession. There's a freedom to open up in theater. We start by writing, to let everything come up and out. We [she and Taylor] are right in the process; we edit, shape, and hone. This can be an extremely therapeutic process -- but we are not therapists. We ask them to find the essential thing about their experiences."

Thompson began the project as a way of connecting with others when her husband of five months developed colon cancer. "I needed a lifeline," she said. "That's what these people felt and we connected." She likened her experience to film: "When you watch noir movies, [the characters] have to keep going after being shot in the stomach. I wanted to talk to someone who had been where I was. We also thought that this would be an opportunity for these people to help others and for them to achieve a little piece of immortality."

From The Cancer Monologue Project: Patsy Sears writes: "I'm sick of hearing that cancer is transformational. I liked my life just fine before. It didn't need to be transformed.…And then whammo! It doesn't feel so much like transformation as being blown to pieces, to smithereens, with body fragments careening into the sky like deadly little missiles."

Thompson said that, so far as she knows, no one in this group has died, but some have gotten very sick. "In performance," she said, "people always rise up for the occasion, even when they are very, very sick. Throughout the process, we want them to be comfortable. The project creates this bridge between the performers and the audience, and many groups hear about it."

She continued: "In town, [participants] are recognized and they feel like celebrities. There has been so much support in Santa Fe. We're ready to go around the country and train others to do this in their communities. In October, we'll start our book tour in Santa Fe; we'll do a signing with some of the participants. On October 15, we'll be at Bookworks in Albuquerque, and October 18 - 20 and November 1 - 3 we'll do a workshop at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston. We are also planning events in New York, Washington D.C., and, possibly, L.A. We have done a similar collection with monologues of people who are HIV positive or have AIDS. I'd like to also do one with caregivers."

Thompson said, "I haven't done my own cancer monologue yet, it's too soon." Her husband, Sal, died a year ago. She told BTW that "these workshops are like antidepressants, my lifeline. For everyone to have this opportunity to have some closure feels like the most important thing I can do. It's funny that all my life I wanted to be on stage, and it turns out what's giving me the greatest joy is putting other people on stage." -- Nomi Schwartz