It's often said that cancer touches all of us, so it's not surprising that two plays at this year's Atlantic Fringe Festival, Ed's Story: The Dragon Chronicles and Vanishing Twins, centre on the disease. Both works make use of the inspiring, healing and teaching power of theatre to explore the effects of cancer on the affected individual, and on the people around them.
It's the teaching aspect of theatre that was the catalyst for the creation of Ed's Story. Dr. Gerri Frager first met Ed, a teenager ill with bone cancer, in her capacity as the medical director of the IWK's Pediatric Palliative Care Services.
"Ed was quite the card," says Frager. "He was athletic, energetic, friendly and independent. He was incredibly mature, juggling his illness, his age and just wanting to grow up."
For the last four months of his life, Ed kept a journal which he occasionally allowed others to read. Frager was immediately captivated by the perspective that the writings gave to who Ed was, and to how cancer affected his life. "We're not usually in this position of privilege of having access to someone's thoughts. But here was this teenage boy saying, 'If it's going to help anyone, by all means go ahead and let others read it.'"
Frager is also director of the Medical Humanities-HEALS Program, which looks at healing and education through arts and life skills. She realized that a play based on Ed's experiences would fit the educational mandate of HEALS. With the blessing of Ed's parents, interviews were conducted with 25 people drawn from his friends, family and health care team. The interviews and diary entries have been woven together into a piece of verbatim theatre written by local playwright-actor Mary-Colin Chisolm. The intention is to share Ed's Story with medical personnel across Canada.
"Studies show that people process things a different way through the arts. They learn differently and at a more profound level, and they retain the knowledge longer," explains Frager. "Ed's story has been covered in academic journals, but by telling it the way the play has been written, people will learn something without thinking, 'I've just been to school.'"
Recent King's graduate Simon Bloom describes his job as director of Ed's Story as a unique experience. He sees the play as both as a valuable tool for helping medical practitioners and patients understand one another, and as a stand-alone piece of art.
"The combination of bringing together the medical world and the theatrical world in this kind of practical application is fantastic," he says. "As a director, to think this work is actually going to change people's minds or at least to encourage discussion is actually pretty great."
Vanishing Twins is also based on a real-life experience with cancer. Writer/director Dan Bray has taken the story of his twin brother's battle with leukemia and combined it with the Greek myth of the mortal Castor and his immortal twin brother Pollux.
"When I was writing the play, I found it kind of freeing to use the archetypes of the Greek characters. I didn't have to be concerned with exact details, and the autobiographical elements could just kind of seep in."
The play is written as a series of monologues delivered by six actors playing Castor and Pollux's nurse, mother, fathers and wives. The characters look back over a 25-year time period, examining their relationships with the twins.
"The way it's written, it's kind of a reflective play, but there are definitely lots of funny moments," says assistant director Colleen MacIsaac. "We see every character living with loss in a different way, but by the end, it's more about connections and relationships. There is a sense of hope."
From MacIsaac's point of view, the marriage of the ancient myth and Bray's autobiographical story works so well because they both pivot on the idea of shared experiences. She sees a connection between the way both cancer and ancient myths have caused people to reflect and to relate stories.
For Bray, it comes as no surprise that there is another play dealing with the aftermath of cancer in the Fringe.
"These kind of real-life stories provide the impetus to create. I think it's really important to share compelling, emotional theatre."