Thoughts on Theatre

Dear Friends,


I love the theatre. My love for the theatre may initially have been kindled at the Dom Polski(1) to which my parents frequently dragged me along as a child. My mother played the piano. My Dad built impressive scenery for the amateur stage performances. (Nothing he ever built was as awe-inspiring as the ornate wheeled sleigh that was used at Christmas time. The sleigh was beautiful. It was big enough and sturdy enough to carry Swięty Mikołaj(2) and up to three hefty assistants, were they called for. My Dad’s sleigh would have humbled any of today’s sub-compact automobiles.)

Performing seasonal skits and especially musicals seemed to be particularly important for the Polish immigrants. It gave them a chance to vicariously recall their more carefree past and hopefully give expression to their aspirations for the future. At Easter, women old and young, dressed in make-believe costumed finery strutted on the stage singing “In My Easter Bonnet”, which is something they’d never have sung (or worn) in their war-torn homeland. I recall wondering why such a bright song never failed to bring a tear to their eyes.


Go ahead. Invite me to a Stage Play, Reading, Puppet Show, Mumenshanz, Kamichibai, Opera, Home Play, Magicians, Balinese Shadow Puppets, Musical, Kabuki, Cabaret, Circus, Operetta, Monologue… and I’m “in.” Judging from the length of this spontaneously-generated list, I must not be alone in responding to the allure of the theatre.

Theatre is often described as that place where one “suspends belief.” I prefer the positive description. Theatre is a place where one chooses to adopt the action of a different time and place and experiences it with the intensity of emotion, empathy and amazement as if one were really present there… wherever “there” might be.

I’m blessed with a vivid and active imagination. One of the things I dislike about books-turned-into-movies is that what is portrayed on the screen is the product of someone else’s imagination. The screen rendition rarely matches up with my own imagination, and seldom lives up to mine.

In an earlier age, its possible I might have been diagnosed as mildly autistic. I found it difficult to focus on one task, alone, because there were so many alternative and interesting things with which to be involved. Perhaps I found the theatre appealing because everything about it facilitates focusing only on what is happening on the stage. That made it a bit easier not to be distracted.

As an actor(3) what I enjoyed most was the ability to “try out” different persona and see how I liked them. I could experience how a character I portrayed might have felt and reacted to a situation, and compare that to how I might have felt and reacted to the same situation. In the comparison I learned about my character but I also learned about myself.

The Church has long recognized the important beneficial aspects of theatre. It has seamlessly incorporated many theatrical qualities in its liturgy. It is right that it has done so. For when mere mortals come into proximity with the mysteries of the Sacraments or approach the Altar where the salvific sacrifice is recreated, it is helpful to clothe oneself with the ancient, dignified and comforting cloak of vesture, color, procession, chant, and precious vessels. These embrace the worshiper in a humble protective mantle. At the same time, we are thus invited to enter into a different dimension, relationship and reality. Liturgical drama is a profound application of the best of theatre to the deepest of spiritual experience.

I’m thinking about the theatre because some people ask me how I can remain so blasé in the face of my life-threatening cancer. I don’t know how to answer such a question because I certainly don’t feel blasé about it, even though I’m happy to say that I am in a very calm period after the Christmas surgery that removed two errant tumors, that is called “watchful waiting”. What such questioners observe must surely have something to do with what I’ve learned from the theatre.

An actor typically plays a role. Good actors so invest themselves in the persona of the character whose role they undertake, they study and pick up their character’s mannerisms, stutters, glances and gestures. They remain “in character” even during breaks in rehearsals, and sometimes long into “real life.” They are not the person they are portraying, but they so much desire to be authentic in their portrayal, they almost become a simulacrum of the original person. This is obviously beneficial and is a determining factor, I daresay, in the awarding of many an Oscar.

I find something akin to taking on a persona, similarly beneficial on a personal level. I don’t always possess the disposition I would like to own. Sometimes I feel irritable. Sometimes I feel depressed. Sometimes I feel scared. Who doesn’t experience a range of such emotions, particularly when confronted with something strange and threatening like cancer? I would never counsel anyone to hide or deny the presence of such feelings. Indeed, it is well worth experiencing such feelings; and often worth reflecting upon them. But I don’t feel inclined, at all times, to share such feelings with others (nor to subject others to my feelings without permission).

In those cases, it is useful for me to “robe myself” with a more positive persona. I do not deceive others by taking on this mantle. The persona I adopt is authentically me, all the while. The odd thing is that in robing myself in such a way I find it often coaxes my disposition to change. From irritability comes calm. From depression emerges hopefulness. From fright, prayerful resignation from fear. This modification… assuming an aspect I would like to possess, seems to me to be associated in some way with prayerfulness… or is even one answer to a prayer. One aspect of prayer can be to help me become the person I want to be—even if, at the moment of praying, being that person eludes me. Taking on the mantle of the person I want to be… or taking on the attitudes and behaviors I wish to possess, in this semi-theatrical way, might, in fact, be an effective way for me to move more gingerly towards my goal. I believe I’ve seen others use this technique; it may be a universal benefit that can be applied by anyone.

Perhaps this was the unsuspected lesson I was absorbing from my childhood experiences at the Dom Polski. Perhaps, too, it is significant that I should particularly recall the dark recesses of the back of the stage where I could observe, unseen, the people in the skits, and the dancers on the dance floor. What I saw, were two contrasting demeanors: the often frightened, often depressed, often penniless, often worried adults in the room, who, despite their travails, displayed only brightness, good cheer and confident friendliness, especially when they sang their songs and performed in the skits I found so captivating. The huge majority of those “play actors” became the distinguished, admirable and loving people who mentored me and whom I admired as I entered my young adulthood and continue to admire to this day.

The lesson they taught me was far more important than I easily recognized.


(1) “Dom Polski” literally means “Polish home”. It is the name of a social club in San Francisco for immigrant Polish families to gather. It still stands on 22nd Street near Mission. These days, the immigrants meeting at the Dom Polski are likely from Latin America. But the importance of gathering together in linguistic harmony and to bask in welcome hospitality, is no less valuable today for the groups gathering there, than it was for the groups that preceded them.

I feel I spent so much time at the Dom Polski as a youngster that my spirit must still be flitting about, from the coatcheck room (where I often earned small pocket change, hanging up coats and scarves) to the library and meeting rooms upstairs, to the stage and dance floor and, of course, to the dark recesses of the back of the stage from where I could observe, unseen, all the people on the stage or on the dance floor, below.

(2) Swięty Mikołaj = St. Nicholas

(3) At Riordan High School I was active on the Speech and Debate Team, and played the role of Buckingham in Shakespeare’s Richard III. I also had a stage part in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. My never-to-be-forgotten stage opportunity came when, in my Senior Year, I won the lead for the King and I. So dedicated was I, that I agreed to completely shave my head for the part! During the intermissions, I needed to apply a lighter shade of pancake cosmetic to my bald head because I’d have developed a “5 o’clock shadow” during the first act. In my adult career, I have been privileged to conduct various classes at the university level, both here and abroad. Teaching, too, benefits from an occasional bit of dramatic or theatrical flair.

Ingrained habits die hard

Dear Friends,


Its a natural inclination for me to want to learn as much as possible about my illness. My attitude is obviously shared by others. It is certainly reinforced by my immediate community of friends. Folks have been referring me to cancer bibliographies and have been sending scanned articles from medical journals for me to read. Others have sent reference books for me to add to my reading pile. I’ve welcomed them all. It appeared irresponsible of me not to conscientiously get to “know thy [my] enemy.” Lately, I’ve been wondering if the nature of knowledge has changed so much in my lifetime that I should master new techniques to keep up with the growing corpus of knowledge, even in my “little corner” of cancer maladies. But what may be required of me, might in fact be different from adopting new searching and filtering techniques. I may need to understand my role differently, and vest myself with an entirely different attitude about learning and the nature of applied knowledge in my case.


Siddartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of all Maladies: a biography of cancer, was published by Scribner just last year. Its a book well worth reading for sheer enjoyment, whether one is a cancer patient or not. In his comprehensive work, Mukherjee (a Stanford grad now on the faculty and on the clinical staff at the Columbia University Medical Center) sets the context for his “biography” with a historical overview of what is known about the incidence of cancer in human beings. In the doing, he relates numerous fascinating vignettes of individual researchers, practitioners and patients over the historical record of the disease. Descriptions of interventions and protocols are provided with unstinting candor. The author doesn’t shirk from explaining how the experience of physicians confronting this confounding disease led, sometimes, to bizarre conclusions and deadly methods of treatment. But he reinforces an optimistic belief that—inexorably, and despite sometimes laughable dead-ends—each historical step led to insight and improved understanding about the disease and its effective treatment. Of particular interest to me was the author’s explanation of the intricate web of institutional collaboration and the eventual governmental coordination of cancer research in the United States. In the section of the book that deals with these institutional relationships, Mukherjee describes the grass-roots social advocacy movements that emerged just decades ago, and the ultimately political maneuverings on which funding for cancer research depends.

I found interesting, as well, the several professional medical journal articles I read. Some described, in meticulous dispassionate detail, minute elements of cell structure; others, the various observed processes of metastasization; still others, the elusive chemical traces of the spread or curtailment of cancers. The articles that documented the efficacy of particular chemotherapies to thwart cancer waywardness filled me admiration. Highly sophisticated methodologies are presently employed to study what might be happening in the body as various chemicals are deployed towards their targets. As I read, it became abundantly clear (were it not sufficiently obvious from the very beginning) that I could no more play “catch-up” with the varied specialties involved in my treatment than I can, today, maintain my car in top running condition (my vehicle being less complicated, by far, than my body.)

The first automobile I could claim as “my own” was a four-cylinder Ford “Consul” my Dad had acquired, who knows where, at fourth- or umpteenth-hand for my use. He hoped, I know, that I’d take an interest in helping him dismantle the engine, replace the compression rings on the cylinders, adjust all the timings, and put everything together again to make the engine purr. More challenging (his eyes lit up at the prospect) was taking apart the comparatively simple transmission, replacing the broken teeth of the multiple interlocked gears, with their minutely-calibrated slip-rings, with new ones (some of which he manufactured himself). The car my Dad purchased was a junkyard wreck. The car he restored was a beauty to drive and to behold. After the mechanical overhaul was complete, it even sported a shiny metallic blue paint job. Fortunately, some of my Dad’s joy in making broken things right, has filtered down (who knows by what genetic mechanism?) to his grandson. My son, Michał, occasionally purchases worn-out milk delivery trucks on eBay. He flies to retrieve the carcasses and shepherds them home, where he lavishes enough attention on their repair and restoration to incorporate the trucks into the small fleet of vintage milk-delivery trucks he operates on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The point of this nostalgia is that there was a time, in my lifetime, when automobiles were fixable by their owners. Monica’s Uncle Bob took apart and put back together again in working order, an assortment of broken mantle and wall clocks, much to the amazement of all who knew him (and much to his relaxed satisfaction). I, myself, could competently change the spark plugs on my Consul, complete with properly adjusting the firing gaps on the plugs before replacing them into their cylinders. The mastery of these useful skills depended, in large part, on access to instruction manuals and books. Mechanical devices (like the relatively simple automobiles of my young adulthood) have evolved into the computerized and mother-boarded vehicles of the present. These no longer come supplied with owner’s manuals. If one grows up with the concept that maintaining vehicles is an owner’s responsibility, one easily translates that attitude towards one’s own body. I’m writing about cars, here. They are entirely crude metaphors—but useful ones—to explain what has taken place in the acquisition and mastery of scientific knowledge during the same span of time.

The history of Science—particularly in recent decades—is marked by astounding growth in better understanding the world we inhabit and how it works. Even so, our knowledge is sketchy, at best. Acquisition of scientific knowledge, in my lifetime, has been catapulted forward, however, by communications technologies. These allow massive amounts of data to be stored in a form that allows future access, without requiring prior knowledge about what might need to be retrieved, nor for what purpose. Dauntingly complicated (except, perhaps, to their programmers) software tools have been designed that enable professional collaboration. What has replaced individual competence is, today, the leveraging of insights and experiences of multiple researchers and clinicians (wherever in the world they may be.) What has replaced the owner’s manual, is retrievability of highly beneficial statistical and evidentiary data from patients like me (wherever such data happens to exist… even in a “cloud”). What has replaced the adjustable wrench, is computer-assisted laboratory and clinical equipment of incredible dexterity and sensitivity. As the result of such leveraging, scientific knowledge is expanding geometrically, rather than at the slower linear progression that may have characterized it in the past.

Changes like these in the volume of data and the specialization of discipline have considerable practical consequences for patients like myself. What I know, that is actionable, is precious little (even with respect to my 2001 automobile). My participation in my recovery requires extremely little knowledge of me of the kind I became trained to seek throughout my life. As a percentage of the the growing corpus of knowledge about cancer, my own experiential bit is an ever-diminishing miniscule. Neither can I consult an “owner’s manual” and pretend to be the professional engineer my Dad was (or the armchair physician I might have hoped to have become through my reading.) Nor can I deny my vulnerability (and here’s the rub), by claiming to be able to comprehend anything at all about what is happening with respect to my medical problem. I cannot know all that specialists know, even though I know they don’t know as much as they will know in the future. I cannot know all that generalists know, because I know they know less than the specialists do about the systemic interactions of chemotherapies, cancers, ecologies, personalities, families, and communities. I am left with possibly evaluating the overall positive direction in which protocols for treating cancer are developed. That I can study. I can also look up the statistical success rates of the interventional techniques that are employed at various institutions. But both of these are far removed from the disease, itself. The information consists of distant indicators, at best; and can be misleading, at worst.

What, then, is the nature of my participation in my recovery?  It must be different from the time-honored “study and ‘know’ thine enemy”. My Dad had some clues for me.

My Dad deliberately invoked sensus communis as something august (which is why he invariably used the Latin term) and essential (which is why he repeatedly exhorted me [sometimes with frustrated exasperation, I must admit] to employ it in and throughout my life.) Common sense, as he saw it, depends on a knowledge of self, coupled with a practical command of how the world works. It demands attentiveness. It expects one to predict what to expect, ask pertinent questions, evaluate hypotheses and, gradually, accumulate wisdom. Common sense was, to my Dad, a corollary to “book-learning” and equally important to it. Applying common sense is similarly useful in evaluating when and how to trust others upon whom one increasingly needs to depend in this more complicated and interconnected world.

My reading has informed me about the sophistication and complexity of cancer research. What my reading hasn’t done is educate me in how to be a patient. Nor does my reading help me come to terms with the fact that—like it or not—being a patient is precisely (and exclusively) what my role is. I think I envisioned my role to be more. I think I felt if I could at least absorb enough of the literature, it would objectify my cancer. That would enable me to deny that the place where “the dread disease” found a stronghold was actually within me… in my own body. Common sense admits to two realities. First, that I’ll never know enough about my illness to speak authoritatively. (Although I may get away with it if I use the proper tone of voice at a cocktail party at which there are no medical persons present.) Second, that I can only participate in the cancer-knowledge community as a patient.

To play my role as patient constructively, I need, first, to be highly attentive to my recovery. Then, I need to be entirely willing (perhaps even eager) to accurately share my experiences of side-effects, reactions to therapies, responses to treatments in as alert a manner as possible. I must be compelled that my experience will contribute to the dataset of knowledge on which some future progress might be made. I must take my role seriously, but under no circumstance exaggerate or denigrate it. Such an orientation forcibly changes my attitude for the good. Neither should I second-guess my care-giver’s decisions; nor am I merely a helpless bystander in the face of my ignorance.

Accordingly, what I will report on my next visit to the Cancer Clinic next week is that my chemotherapy has been—thus far—kind to me (though, I trust, not so kind to my cancer. That yet remains to be seen.) Many foods taste metallic. I fear I may smell “chemical”. My normally regular circadian rhythms of bathroom visits for elimination have become unpredictable. Various degrees of diarrhea are common. Feelings (perhaps imaginary, caused by my being worried about it) of neuropathy seem to exist in my toes. Oddly, I experience a sharp disabling pain of 15-45 seconds’ duration, every time I take food or drink into my mouth after not having eaten for a period of half an hour or so. (This side-effect has been reported by one other patient in my Cancer Clinic.) The pain is centered beneath my ear lobes, about the point where my jaw hinges and where, apparently, several salivary glands are located. Other than these entirely manageable effects, I feel physically well. But I am paying attention to anything else I can dutifully and accurately report.

If I cannot be more than a patient, I can be an active, attentive patient. I can take pride in that.



Mukherhjee’s Book on Amazon