‘Time to Tell Our Stories’
Event offers opportunity to heal and remember those touched by cancer
Photo by Jane Ford
|U.Va. associate professor of drama Kate Burke reads one of the stories she solicited from families, friends, caregivers and survivors for the event she organized, “Time to Tell Our Stories.” Burke is a 21-year survivor of breast cancer.
By Jane Ford
The sun had set. The track at Monticello High School was ringed with hundreds of white paper bags glowing with lit candles, each in honor of someone who has been lost to cancer, who is still fighting or has won the battle. While the candles glowed as a symbol of hope in the night, hundreds of people walked around the track in silence. Emotional and inspiring, it was a night of remembrance.
The event was part of the American Cancer Society Relay for Life fundraiser, which began at 8 a.m. on June 4 and ran until 8 a.m. on June 5.
Throughout that 24-hour period, a group of about 20 actors presented their own event of remembrance called “Time To Tell Our Stories.” Organized by Drama Department associate professor Kate Burke and performed by Actors Fighting Cancer Celebrate Life!, the event brought to life stories Burke had solicited from families, friends, caregivers and survivors about their cancer experiences.
The stories were filled with passion; they were at times humorous, angry, fearful, respectful and amorous. They were also introspective about the “gifts” of the cancer experience and inquisitive of the meaning of life.
The stories showcased all different points of view. Some focused on how cancer brought out the best — and sometimes the worst — in individuals and families. But what resounded in each account was an affirmation of life, Burke said.
“That’s what theater is,” she said. “It looks at life from all sides — the dark and the light of life.”
Some captured a moment in time, like a snapshot; others chronicled a series of moments as more developed pieces. Faith Hurley, an M.F.A. drama student who graduated in May performed a monologue she adapted as part of her thesis project from Dave Eggers’ book “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” At 22, Eggers became the “parent” of his seven-year-old brother when both his parents died from unrelated cancers.
Rising fourth-year student Keenan Caldwell performed a scene from the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Wit,” in which a fictional English professor reassesses her life in light of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After quoting lines from a John Donne poem about life and death, the professor, a Donne scholar, says angrily, “We are discussing life and death and not in the abstract anymore. We are discussing my life and my death.”
The character continues with her own life’s analysis: “I’m like a student taking a final exam, and I don’t understand the question, and I’m running out of time.”
Burke, the event’s creator and a 21-year survivor of breast cancer, had long wanted to do a performance piece on breast cancer and has broadened that focus to include all cancers. As a teacher of voice, she knows the power of the spoken word.
“Time To Tell Our Stories” proved to be a tremendous learning experience for many in Burke’s acting troupe, which she put together for the event. As the group, made up of U.Va. students, faculty and members of the community, read through the stories on Saturday mornings leading up to the event, Burke could tell that many were struggling with how to deal with the often raw emotions the stories elicited.
“It’s a powerful teaching moment when theater is real, when emotional reactions are real,” Burke said. It’s also a lesson in “how we deal with these moments in real life.”
Some of the students had their own stories to share. The second week the group met, May graduate Liesel Allen-Yeager said she wanted to tell the story of her grandmother’s struggle during her last weeks and days with cancer. With her feelings still very raw, Allen-Yeager was barely able to speak as tears streamed down her face.
When she took the stage at the Relay for Life, the joy, pride and love that she clearly felt for her grandmother beamed from her as she exclaimed, “Cancer is a blessing!” Throughout the ordeal, she explained, the two had discovered they were kindred spirits. Although there was a generation between them, they shared similar tastes in music and often understood how one another felt.
For troupe member Elizabeth Donatelli, a Charlottesville resident taking private voice lessons from Burke, the event was a unique opportunity to work on her acting skills. Her involvement did not stem from being personally touched by cancer, but she immediately felt the sting of the intense emotions the disease produces. Earlier in the day, she felt touched as she listened to the survivors come to the microphone and tell about when they received their cancer diagnosis. For some it was more than 40 years. For others, it was only months. “It was a reality check,” she said.
Donatelli again was moved when she finished performing one of her stories, “I Nominate My Mother for Queen for a Day.” The woman who had submitted the story watched with her family, who responded with joy. They hugged Donatelli and asked for her autograph.
Recent M.F.A. acting graduate Maura Malloy performed a selection, complete with Brooklyn accent, from actress Fran Dresher’s inspirational book “Cancer Schmancer.” Star of the TV comedy “The Nanny,” Dresher wrote: “This book celebrates life as much as anything. … The joy and laughter I experienced with my family and friends, even during the worst of times, are the feelings I hope to leave with you. I definitely know more about women’s medicine than I did before the cancer, but most important, I know my loved ones better, and I hope I know how to live life more completely. That’s my real triumph.”
From her own experience with cancer, Burke knows that people constantly carry their stories with them — stories they need to tell, to share. She listened to the persistent voice inside that kept nagging her to share the power of spoken words. She gave a gift to many in the community by shedding light on their words, their stories.
“Actors have the skill to take an identity, embrace it and be a spokesperson for the individual and do it very well,” she said. Through her effort, Burke gave a voice to many whose stories are not usually heard on the stage — and a gift of healing and remembrance.