In 2001, at the age of 20, I was diagnosed with stage 3 metastatic testicular cancer. As a cancer patient, I was regularly asked if I was feeling “back to normal,” as if Normal was a place I could go back to, as if Normal was a destination that, when I finally got there, would mean that all my problems, worries, fears and pains were gone. In my most generous moods, I understood that people asked this question because they cared how I was feeling in relation to my treatment and that Normal, to them, meant healed.
In my least generous moods, I felt that people asked if I was back to Normal in the hopes that I would no longer mention my illness. That it was easier, and more pleasant for them, if we didn’t have to discuss it. That their reality wouldn’t have to stretch to include ill-heath, fragility, vulnerability.
In A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, we have tried to create a world in which the fears, disappointments, and day-to-day, uninspiring minutiae experienced by those with a cancer diagnosis are welcomed as legitimate subjects for theatrical exploration and, beyond this, public display.
While most narratives use diagnosis, chemo, hair loss, group therapy, and surgery as plot points on the way to a transformative narrative (“Thanks to our survival of/death from cancer, now our life has meaning!”), A Pacifist’s Guide zooms in on these details in the hopes of understanding the experience of illness itself from unique perspectives.
Distilling the mess of cancer into song and dance
In the musical, the narrator – herself unexpectedly negotiating “The Kingdom of the Sick” (to use a term coined by Susan Sontag) – finds herself drawn into the middle of cancer stories that feel different from the TV dramas or inspirational films she’s seen before.
Each character is drawn from real interviewees whose different cancer experiences feel marginalised by contemporary narratives, and include stories about chronic cancers, the ethics of genetic testing, and denial in death. Because cancer remains both critically under-examined (while publicly over-discussed, especially in comparison to other illnesses and conditions), we hope that the close examination of the sights, the sounds, the absurdity, and the fear will demystify the experience of the word cancer, thereby reducing some of its frightening power.
That power (of the word, the illness, the reality) is at the core of A Pacifist’s Guide, which was conceived after Bryony Kimmings (artist extraordinaire) was asked to a meeting with Judith Dimant MBE (producer extraordinaire with Complicite). During the meeting, Dimant revealed that she had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
Artists can think, research and plan for inspiration for years, but often the best inspirations just land in our laps. Although it’s a common joke that solo performers don’t get cancer, they get inspiration, rarely do artists and producers jump so fearlessly into a topic as difficult as cancer, but jump they did – and brought me and the entire team along for the ride.
I have co-written the book for A Pacifist’s Guide with Bryony, who also directs and wrote lyrics for the songs alongside composer Tom Parkinson. As one of the members of the creative team who has experienced cancer, and a “professional cancer patient” – that is, a person who continues to write and work with cancer patients and themes of illness despite ‘surviving’ – it has always been my role to distil the mess, to clarify the noise of cancer.
Writing stories we don’t see often enough A simple internet search will reveal what I mean. When we are looking for it, cancer is everywhere: it is in our debates about NHS provision and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence decisions; it is in our science news proclaiming new discoveries; in our food news warning of new carcinogens; in our entertainment sections advertising fundraisers and charity walks; in our obituaries, mourning both international celebrities and local community members.
So where does one start with a musical about cancer? For me, the most important starting point was about marginal experiences of cancer – stories that we don’t see often, and which might not fit into the world of ribbons, fundraisers and discrete, neatly ended storylines. For myself, as a young, queer man with testicular cancer (treated in the same facility as the now-fallen icon Lance Armstrong), the idea of the Inspirational Cancer Story, after which one Lives Stronger, always felt really false.
While, of course, such a message is helpful to many, I still felt as if people were imposing a narrative journey for me (to help me get back to Normal) that wasn’t what they would have imposed if they had actually asked me about my fears or desires. So the starting point for us was to identify those who might sit and just listen.
Listening can be very difficult, but these perspectives from cancer patients became the bedrock of our creative process. Instead of forcing these patients’ words into narratives that might be recognisable to non-ill people, we just wanted them to hold space just as they were. Some audiences at A Pacifist’s Guide might miss the opportunity to cry tears of happiness (or sadness) when they learn the fate of a character they know and love.
Other audience members, we hope, will find it deeply fulfilling to sit with patients going through their day – finding comfort in experiences that may be similar, finding new complicated perspectives that expand what cancer is and might be. And for me, A Pacifist’s Guide helps me imagine a world in which it is Normal to talk about fragility in public, and Normal to have cancer (with all its tricky, complicated realities) as a subject in artwork – even in a musical. That’s a Normal I’d like to go to.
A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, opens at Manchester’s HOME on 20 September (0161 200 1500), then tours to Exeter Northcott and National Theatre, London.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.