I was shocked by the depth of peoples’ responses “club termina,” the musical I wrote in the wake of my own diagnosis with breast cancer—and to process the grief I felt when I survived, and my friends did not.
You could feel it build as the women performed. Audiences got transported to this strange club, suspended in disbelief, rooting for everybody to survive. But when the character Secret, written in homage to my late friend Sigrid, did her monologue, people realized they weren’t going to get a happy ending.
“I laughed about it with all my friends,” Secret explains. “I didn’t want to freak anybody out. Besides, I knew I was going to survive. I could feel it in my bones! But really, from the first cell that broke loose and spelled c-a-n-c-e-r, I was d-e-a-d.” Her character was so optimistic that the audience hung on to her hoping the play would come to a jolly conclusion.
When Secret was called to her next existence, when she stopped speaking, you could feel the audience accepting the finality of her life, and somebody would run out of the theatre, gasping or sobbing.
The first few times I assumed they had left—so overwhelmed or upset that they had run from the story I was sharing. But each time, I would find them waiting in the lobby after closing, waiting to talk to me. Each time, they would tell me that the story gave them a new way to think of death—as a new chapter in the ongoing existence of our spirits. “club termina” hadn’t just channeled the terror, grief, and pain of my diagnosis and those of other women—it had helped all of us, together, realize that “terminal” didn’t mean end of the line.
After “club termina” wrapped, I sat down in a different kind of room to hear different kinds of stories: I taught workshops at the Wellness Community, a cancer support workshop for those with terminal diagnoses. Everyone in the group was going to die, and week to week, we lost some of the voices within our small community. Trying to get these women to write about their experiences never worked: the women needed to talk. They wanted to sit with me, with each other, and tell the truth about their fears, their anger, their cancer. I could relate—because finally telling my story had provided me with much-needed healing.
The last hurrah for “club termina” had been a series of concert readings in different cities. When we were in LA, my oncologist did a Q and A afterward. Women in the audience asked about a symptom they were afraid of, a lump they had felt. Watching that happen, I realized storytelling was the most important gift I could offer.
Putting a show together is difficult. In the old days, a play meant that an audience had to show up at a specific place at a specific time. A live show was always filled with the excitement and nerves that come with hoping each actor and tech person will get to the theatre safely and on time. In Los Angeles, it also means hoping the actor doesn’t get a commercial or gig that shoots during performance time. Assuming the best, by Half Hour, all are in costume, or behind the light board, and the next step is magic.
Then the show opens and immediately creates a community—people watching a story together, sharing something that happens once and then disappears into space.
I never knew if those women who waited in the wings for me were cancer survivors or patients or just those who had felt the loss and fear of a loved one’s diagnosis. We didn’t need to explain ourselves to each other in order to keep talking to one another.
What we had shared in the theater had bonded and healed us both.