She’ll Show Cancer: A Survivor Brings Her Story to the Stage

BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Nancy Rappaport, MD sought solace in long walks or small acts kindness offered by others — but in doing so, setbacks often found a way to assert themselves. Whether getting shooed out of a comforting cemetery, being fined for letting her unleashed dog roam the beach, or having hospital staff insist she part with the excellent socks given as a gift by an empathetic neighbor, indignities seemed to pepper her transition from doctor to patient.

“The decisions,” she noted, “are coming at me fast and furious; lumpectomy, radiation, mastectomy, plastic surgery, genetic testing. … October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. My operation is October 6th. Maybe I could get a discount?” That’s typical of Rappaport’s knack for mining irony, at least as told by a lightly fictionalized version created to dramatize her unexpected diagnosis.

A breast cancer diagnosis forced Nancy Rappaport to go from doctor to patient. Photo by Rose Lincoln.

In August 2015, Rappaport was a 55-year-old psychiatrist, Harvard Medical School associate professor, author, athlete, wife, and mother of three. Running 20 minutes late for an MRI test done as part of a routine screening, she assured her husband, “We eat kale, broccoli, quinoa, and boatloads of salmon.” But when the results came back and reality sank in, she closed the door on rationalizations. This was a time for “Regeneration” — the title of the theatrical work currently being performed at United Solo Festival as “a love letter to the ‘flock’ that surrounded me” during and after the left breast mastectomy she describes in her show as feeling “like a planned catastrophe, as if deciding to drive into a brick wall at 100 miles per hour.”

As for how the show came to be, “I was writing to friends and family after my mastectomy,” Rappaport recently told us in a phone interview. “I wasn’t used to being in bed [inactive] for a month, and I got lonely. I began taking walks in Mount Auburn Cemetery with a friend [the cemetery’s art curator], and people would write back when I would describe it.” Another friend suggested translating her written accounts into a live performance, and over the six months it took to “get back to speed seeing patients and teaching, I worked with various people to help me take what were just personal reflections and emails and make it into an active script.”

Rappaport, then a 13-time veteran of the Boston Marathon, found in the development of “Regeneration” an outlet for the long-distance runner’s devotion to intense preparation in pursuit of an epic goal. “I like going for the top and challenging myself,” she said. Even so, why would a person whose last acting gig was the seventh grade play choose to express herself in a manner that required the rapid acquisition of a whole new skill set?

Referring to the 2009 publication of “In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother’s Suicide,” its author deadpanned, “Nobody should write two memoirs. If you didn’t say it in the first one, you’re just out of luck.”

With the notion of another book off the table for that very good reason, Rappaport’s stage project provided a chance not only to tell her story, but also to experience it from a much different vantage point than her profession allowed. “As a psychiatrist,” Rappaport observed, “you are much more above the action looking down on it. In acting, you have to be ‘in the moment’ and allow that moment to propel you into the next one, which is what they say about narrative therapy… building a narrative is a very protective thing.” That doesn’t mean, however, that the memoirist in her didn’t take advantage of theater’s allowances for blurring reality. Although “Regeneration” is mostly told as things actually unfolded, she gave herself a different name and profession “so I could put the play in a box when I was done, and not be reliving the trauma.”

Early efforts to transfer her written words to a live performance yielded challenges both rewarding (“Coming in with a curiosity and a love for theater was wonderful.”) and frustrating (“Whenever I would mess up a line, it was often because I hadn’t gotten to the crux of the meaning of what I wanted to say.”). Rappaport began working with a director, and even enlisted the help of Erika Bailey, head of voice and speech at the American Repertory Theater. In the spirit of things coming full circle, her tale of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery was performed at the very site of those contemplative walks. “Initially, it was love letter to Mount Auburn Cemetery,” Rappaport recalled, noting that its 174 acres have a pull on those who don’t visit the grounds to mourn. “There are 60,000 monuments, 4,000 trees,” she said. “It’s thought of as a open air art museum. The power of that cemetery to provide healing and comfort to the living is something Mount Auburn takes a lot of pride in.”

Nancy Rappaport, from when she performed “Regeneration” at a Mount Auburn Cemetery chapel. Photo by Jennifer Johnston.

Heeding her sound design engineer’s suggestion, a cellist provided the show’s early iterations with prerecorded music. Performing live, Miranda Henne is the cellist for this current version, supplying “Regeneration” with a signature sound that, Rappaport said, “becomes a character in the play. She gives it a sense of sorrow and confusion but can also be robust and moving. It really amplifies the mood… That’s where I think I’m sort of cheating [at the Solo Festival]. It’s a two-woman show now.”

Rappaport said that although “Regeneration” chronicles a very specific journey, she hopes all audience members will leave with a heightened awareness of their “inner resourcefulness” that can be tapped in the face of challenges. “I also want those of use who are over 45 to become more compassionate about how our bodies change. Others might think about their own health challenges, and sometimes people are just moved by me taking a risk.”

Today, when she’s not taking risks on stage, Rappaport (who was recently given a clean bill of health) is pushing herself in other challenging arenas, including CrossFit. “A lot of it is lifting [weights] over your shoulder,” she said, “so it’s about managing your fear.” Her final show in the United Solo Festival, she noted, falls on her 58th birthday. It might be curtains for this particular booking, but for Rappaport, happy to sprint through life, the run is far from over.

“Regeneration” is written and performed by Nancy Rappaport. Directed by Grace Kiley, with lighting by Giovanni Villari. Runtime: 55 minutes. Sun., Oct. 15, 7:30pm at Theatre Row/Studio Theatre (410 W. 42nd St., btw. Ninth & 10th Aves.). For tickets ($35),visit unitedsolo.org/us/regeneration-2017 or call 212-239-6200. Artist info at nancyrappaport.com.

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