Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

Cancer Play Is Reality Theatre

Cancer Play
Cancer Play Is Reality Theatre
GUESTSWayne Beach is a professor in the Department of Communication at San Diego State University. His research is the basis for "The Cancer Play." Bill Damkoehler is an actor who plays the father in "The Cancer Play" Brian Bielawski is an actor who plays the son in "The Cancer Play"

CAVANAUGH: If we were to conduct a survey about which word in the English language causes the most immediate fear and panic, the word cancer could very well top the list. Even with medical advances and increases in survival rates, cancer remains a dreaded diagnosis and a life-changing experience. San Diego state professor of communications Wayne Beech has spent years researching how people speak about cancer and how they communicate with friends and family about their illness. A play created out of that research is about to be performed by actors from San Diego's Moxie Theatre. It will be videotaped and sent to cities around the country. I'd like to welcome Professor Wayne Beach. Welcome back to the program. BEACH: Thanks for having me. CAVANAUGH: And we have two actors with us today. Thank you both. And you'll be performing a scene from the play later. Thanks for being here. DAMKOEHLER: You're welcome. BIELAWSKI: Our pleasure. CAVANAUGH: Remind us how you got started researching how families talk about cancer. BEACH: A family donated me a corpus of phone recordings in a shoebox as audio cassettes and ask that I not work on them for five year, and filled do that to keep them anonymous to protect their privacy. I waited eight years before I worked on them, and I didn't get started on them until my own mother was diagnosed with cancer in Iowa. And while I was on the phone dealing with her and my family members and doctors and so on, I really wondered what was in that shoebox back in my office. And that's how I got started. CAVANAUGH: And the recordings themselves started as sort of a mistake. Someone didn't realize that they actually left their recording device on, is that other? BEACH: Right. The son was a brought student in conversation analysis and going onto doctor work in Texas. And he was practicing recording, and recorded the first two calls without him knowing that. CAVANAUGH: What struck you most about these conversations? BEACH: Like everyone I had very dark and foreboding conceptions of cancer. And my mother had just recently passed away in four months from diagnosis through death. But I came out of that with a strong sense of family and communication and support that you get out of communication through that kind of a journey. I was struck when I got into these phone calls that it's really not about death. It's about the affirmation of life. And it's really not about despair, it's about being hopeful. CAVANAUGH: Now, you listened to these conversations, you say, after you went through your own mother's bout with cancer. And I'm wondering, did those conversations sound like some of the conversations you had had with your mother? BEACH: Oh, very much so. There's a lot of attention paid on delivering and receiving good and bad news, and updating news on an ongoing basis. This corpus of calls is 61 calls over 13 months from diagnosis through death of a mother, wife, sister. So there's a lot of attention on what the doctors have told them, how they're feeling. A lot of issues having to do with dealing with the inevitable uncertainty of the future. Of not being able to control and necessarily predict something having to do with illness or death. The power of hope, the role of humor and teasing and jokes as the new normal develops over time. I was just struck by the fact that this is that unique family, mine was unique, but there are universals in the social condition that we all identify with. CAVANAUGH: Bill and Brian are here to recreate one of those conversations, do a little snippet from the cancer play that's going to be performed at the lyceum this weekend. Can you set up the scene for us? BEACH: Sure. I didn't know if you wanted to do one or two excerpts, so the first one is where I began, and where the recordings began. It's the first call when the dad informs the son that mother's tumor has been diagnosed as malignant. I'll just say ring! DAMKOEHLER: Hello? BIELAWSKI: Hola! DAMKOEHLER: Como esta? BIELAWSKI: Bien, bien. Y tu? DAMKOEHLER: Umm, yeah! Whatever. BIELAWSKI: Out already, huh? DAMKOEHLER: Well, late in the day. BIELAWSKI: You got to get past the como esta, pop. Come on! DAMKOEHLER: Well, late in the day. BIELAWSKI: I guess I'll forgive you this time. See to it it doesn't happen again. DAMKOEHLER: Okay. BIELAWSKI: What's up? DAMKOEHLER: They came back with a needle biopsy results or at least in part. BIELAWSKI: Uh-huh. DAMKOEHLER: The tumor that is the Adrenal gland tumor tests positive. It is malignant. BIELAWSKI: Okay. That's the been behoove her kidney? DAMKOEHLER: Yeah. BIELAWSKI: Okay. I didn't even realize there was a tumor there. I knew she had a problem -- DAMKOEHLER: Maybe I'm not saying it right. There's -- I don't know that there's a tumor there, they needle biopsied the Adrenal gland. BIELAWSKI: Okay. DAMKOEHLER: And that one came back testing positive. BIELAWSKI: Okay. DAMKOEHLER: They did a double needle biopsy of the lung. That one they do not have the results on. BIELAWSKI: Jesus. CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much. And I want to let everyone know that's Brian Damkoehler as the father, and Brian Bielawski as the son. So Wayne, here we have people really sounding as if they're on the phone with one another. Whoever transcribed this into a play form, it sounds like a natural phone conversation. And trying to come to grips and maintain who they are in a normal world while facing a new one. BEACH: Right. First of off, all the dialogue in the play is drawn from the natural phone conversations. So my job as the playwright was to edit down 7.5 hours of phone calls to 70 minutes. And that's where it's at. So it is real dialogue. And the actors are so good at what they do, that they bring it off to remind us of real phone conversations ourselves. This particular scene says a lot about the delivery of bad news. For example in everyday life bad news is almost always delayed. And good news is almost always announced immediately. And so the Spanish lesson at the front of the call literally delayed getting to the news until dad had an opportunity to forecast to the son that the news that wasn't delivered yet was going to be bad, not good. And at that point, they moved to the delivery sequence, and that's when the son was informed by the dad. CAVANAUGH: Now, bill and Brian, did you listen to any of these phone conversations? BIELAWSKI: I did at the very beginning of the process. We sat down, I think we went through several tapes. So I got a sense of what the son actually sounded like. And also at a certain point, we made a decision in the cast not to listen further so that we would be able to bring our own actors' muscle to it. DAMKOEHLER: And I came in a little later in the original process. The beginning of it had happened much earlier. When I came in, I didn't have time to listen to the tape, and I felt it would at that point not be helpful. And the interesting thing is that after the first read-through, several of the people who had listened to the tapes said that was remarkably what the dad sounded like on those tapes. And I'm not surprised, because the rhythms and the flow of the way these were transcribed is just so human. CAVANAUGH: Right. DAMKOEHLER: And you just -- I personally just fell right into it. CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, when this -- this is a real example of using the arts, the theatre specifically to communicate what you learned as a social scientist. How did you come up with this idea of expanding? Because this had been a book. And now it's a play. Why make it into a play? BEACH: Well, I can tell you it was entirely unmotivated. And I'm certainly not claiming expertise in the theatre. But I had been using the materials educational in classrooms, doing lectures across the United States on these materials as publications emerged before the book was formed, and also doing community sessions because the American Cancer Society funded the initial round of this. And I was increasingly struck by how people that heard it on the audio version of the phone calls told stories about their own lives and got triggered by these circumstances to tailor it to specific details of their own cancer journeys. And it's not just about the cancer, it's about us dealing with illness and death and life in general. And that's when I started realizing that it -- we were going to reach an even broader audience integrating with the arts, that would be a powerful venue, and it has been. CAVANAUGH: Let's hear another snippet from the play. BEACH: So the setup on this one is that there came a point, and it speaks directly to how we can't control the future about death, where the son was informed by the dad that if he was going to see mom again, he should come home. He was in the doctor program at the University of Texas at Austin. And so he did a lot of work preparing to get ready to leave. Phone calls to the airlines, taking care of the dog, the apartment, etc. And then this excerpt at the beginning of the call basically told the son to stay there because mom had stabilized, literally overnight. And this is the latter part of that phone call. BIELAWSKI: So should I expect a phone call, like, in a matter of a day or two? Or a week or two? DAMKOEHLER: No, no. If I had to give you an uneducated goes. BIELAWSKI: The only kind you can give me. DAMKOEHLER: Yeah! I'll say a month to six weeks. BIELAWSKI: Okay. Well, yeah, and I know doctor Wiley will never say anything in particular, right? DAMKOEHLER: Well, you know, she's only got an educated crystal ball. BIELAWSKI: Sure. DAMKOEHLER: She looks and she said, well, okay! We got a few more tumors here, we can radiate those. That'll slow those down. And the next one pops up. You know? This is like trying to squash mushrooms in a rainstorm! The suckers just keep popping up! Eventually you're going to lose. But who knows what eventually is? Well, we'll work with that then. I will unpack my bag, and I'll keep my lesson plans current. >> Keep your list up-to-date, but leave the bag where it is. BIELAWSKI: Yeah, okay. >> That's the best I can tell you at the moment. I told you, life's a bitch. BIELAWSKI: Yeah, right [ LAUGHTER ] DAMKOEHLER: No rose garden. Bailey: No rose garden. CAVANAUGH: That has so much resonance for anyone who has been through any kind of serious illness within the family, the whole garden conversation and trying to keep your spirits up. There is -- there are, I believe actual moments of levity, though, in this production. BIELAWSKI: Yeah. CAVANAUGH: People won't be weeping in their sleeve through the whole thing. BEACH: 3/4 of the audience members who have seen it over the years have described as uplifting, and less than 10% have described it as depressing. So it breaks the mold thinking about the word cancer as a devil term, not a God term. And a friend of mine just this morning, a colleague in the school of communication, the director of our school said when I think of cancer, there's so much in my life right now, I think of the skull and cross bones. So you know it's striking when you actually dig into the materials that there's a lot of teasing between family members, stories about dogs, grandma doing special grandma things with her grandson and the like. So there is a lot of levity and humor. And that's the basis of hope. CAVANAUGH: Now, this is going to be recorded and sent to cities around the country. Can you explain more about what the goal of that? BEACH: Right. We're currently in a Phase 2 funding from the national cancer institute that blends baseball research, and that's what I've done with my team, with a small business venture in Colorado. We're now going to disseminate it nationwide as DVD screenings. In the first round, we found that the powerful reactions from audience members were as strong from watching the DVD as watching it live, which is strange for theatre, I've been told. So we're going to be disseminating it here in San Diego in August. Then to salt like city, then to Lincoln Nebraska, then to Boston, Massachusetts. And each site is organized by major comprehensive cancer centers, schools of communication at major universities and colleges, and community cancer groups. CAVANAUGH: So the goal, it would seem to me, would be to find, and we have very little time here, but to find a way of -- for people to speak about cancer and to realize that these conversations are going to all over, families all over the country, for years just trying to deal with this illness. BEACH: Exactly. The stuff of resilience and hope and strength often comes from the conversations that we have. And that cuts across the grain of the stereotype of cancer just being bad. CAVANAUGH: The play is offered free to the public this Friday-Sunday at the lyceum theatre at Horton Plaza, it's presented by actors from Moxie Theatre and directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg of the lyceum. Thank you all very, very much.

The Cancer Play

"The Cancer Play" is free and open to the public.

Theatrical performances will be held at San Diego Lyceum Theater on April 12 and 13 at 7:30 p.m. and April 14 at 2 p.m.

Reservations are required, call 619-410-5061

If we were to conduct a survey about which word in the English language causes the most immediate fear and panic, the word "cancer" could very well top the list.

Even with medical advances and increases in survival rates, cancer remains a dreaded diagnosis and a life-changing experience.


San Diego State University professor of communication Wayne Beach has spent years researching how people speak about cancer and how they communicate with friends and family about their illness.

A play created out of that research is about to be performed by actors from San Diego's Moxie Theatre. It will be videotaped and sent to cities around the country.