Cancer survivors turn their experience into powerful theater
by Carolyn Lorie
Published March 31, 2005
BRATTLEBORO – Bonnie Ladeau remembers the moment she decided the cancer in her breast wasn’t going to kill her.
It was a day five and half years ago, just hours before she was to go into surgery. Ladeau stood before a mirror, looked at a woman she wasn’t sure she recognized and lamented her fate. Cancer had killed her uncles and aunts and siblings and now it was her turn.
“No,” she told the mirror. “I am not going to let it eat at me.”
After surgery, 27 treatments of radiation and finally recovery, Ladeau was able to retrieve that moment, hold it up to the light and say yes, I lived that.
She is one of eight women whose story of surviving breast cancer will be told in a performance of “Bosom Buddies” this Friday and Saturday. It is being presented by Wild Root Arts and held in the Hooker-Dunham Theater & Gallery.
The piece is a collaborative effort between the eight women, theater director Leah Carey and best-selling novelist Jodi Picoult — all of whom live in Vermont or New Hampshire.
For three months in 2004, the group met two evenings a week. Picoult instructed the women on writing and gave them exercises: Write for 20 minutes about the day you were diagnosed; write about something funny that happened during the course of your treatment.
The women wrote, they explored, they brought it all back.
For Marcia Berry, reliving her struggle with cancer through words made it more real. As she explains it, some experiences engulf you to the point where it’s only on the other side of it that you can take in how big it really was. It was the writing that allowed Berry to acknowledge the enormity of what she went through.
After every writing session, Carey would take those raw notes home, string together the stories and return with a script. The women poured over the reworking of their lives, made changes here and there, until they created a series of vignettes worthy of theater.
“Bosom Buddies” was the brainchild of Carey. A resident of Franconia, N.H., Carey has never had breast cancer nor has it struck anyone close to her. Prior to starting the project, she had never met any of the women whose stories of illness and recovery were woven together to create the piece.
The inspiration for the project came to Carey, after a 2001 production of “Guys and Dolls” in Raleigh, N.C.
Carey, who graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in acting and directing, was part of the stage management team for the show. Preparations for the production were in full swing, when three days before opening night, two planes slammed into the World Trade Center in New York City.
In the midst of a national crisis and personal chaos — many people in the cast and crew had friends and family in New York — the decision was made to follow the old adage. The show went on.
On opening night, the theater was packed. After the last curtain dropped, the cast returned to the stage and invited the audience to sing with them. Everyone did.
In that moment, it occurred to Carey how desperately people needed to be there and to feel less alone in a dangerous world. The theater had given them that, it had transformed an unconnected mass of grieving individuals into a community.
Theater, she decided, could do more than entertain and inspire and distract. It could transform.
Over the next several years, Carey sought out projects that would accomplish that in a very conscious way. At some point, for reasons she finds difficult to explain, she decided to work with the survivors of breast cancer. She enlisted the help of Picoult, put ads in local newspapers seeking participants and took the first eight women willing to commit.
“[Bosom Buddies] is the culmination of that night for me,” says Carey.
Richard Epstein, founder and director of Wild Root Arts, has never seen “Bosom Buddies” performed, but as soon as he heard about it he knew he wanted to bring it to Brattleboro.
Like Carey, Epstein believes in the transformative power of art. He also believes that storytelling and concerns about health are two basic elements of the human experience and that together they are a compelling combination.
For him, the women in “Bosom Buddies” — who not only wrote their stories but perform them as well — are archetypal heroes.
“So many stories have to do with a hero going to dangerous places and getting through them and coming out the other side and, as Joseph Campbell would say, coming back to the tribe to tell the story,” he says.
Part of Ladeau’s story includes a day of silent prayer in church. She was half way through the radiation treatments that riddled her body with blisters, when she suddenly felt a wave of peace wash over her.
She knew she was going to live.