In its first virtual performance, the Visible Ink writing therapy program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center shared works by patients and staff members that touched on the COVID-19 pandemic and were interpreted by celebrity actors, singers and dancers.
Like surviving cancer, braving the COVID-19 pandemic can inspire a new appreciation for life.
Some who have made it through both experiences expressed that gratitude June 18 when their essays were shared as part of the 12th annual performance associated with Visible Ink, the writing therapy program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) in New York City. The show was the first in the program’s history to virtually share works interpreted by musicians, actors, singers and dancers and the only one to have a dual theme: cancer and coronavirus.
Performed were 12 pieces, ranging from poignant to humorous, that were written by MSK patients and staff members with the help of Visible Ink writing mentors. Interpreting the works were celebrity performers including Broadway talents Laura Benanti and Javier Ignacio and television actors Victor Garber and Jonas Cohen. Andrew David Sotomayor served as musical director and Matthew Steffens as choreographer.
Susan Spain, an actress, narrator and singer who has performed in all 12 shows, described the event as “a beautiful production of love” that brings people’s stories to life while raising money for Visible Ink.
With the first online stream of a shorter 50-minute show, she said, participants lost the opportunity to interact but gained the chance to share their thoughts on a pandemic that has caused enormous changes to everyday life.
“These stories serve as part of the record of this extraordinary time,” said Greg Kachejian, artistic director of Visible Ink, which fosters the writing of short works including rap songs and poems. “Cancer patients are sometimes isolated out of necessity. Some are used to wearing masks and gloves in public during treatment. They can confront scary uncertainties. It wasn’t surprising to see that they had many relevant messages to share at this moment. Our cast and crew honored this wonderful work with their own creative talents and adapted to Zoom rehearsals and at-home filming just as any you’d expect from any resourceful performer.”
The stories touched on a variety of experiences and emotions. Rocco Caputo, an MSK pediatric therapist whose essay was read by actor Jonas Cohen, focused on a young patient’s concern for his mother. While parents are usually the ones wracked with worry about their children who have cancer, in this case the tables were turned as the child expressed fear about his mother leaving the sterile hospital environment, where she might be more vulnerable to the virus.
Another piece, written by Mary Shannon Little and performed by daytime television doyenne Susan Lucci, took the form of a fan letter written to coronavirus from cancer.
Meanwhile, Hannah Berner of Bravo’s “Summer House” ticked through a relatable list of things that writer Sally G. Hoskins had committed to do while in isolation but hadn’t accomplished, including abdominal crunches, sewing and writing a novel, and a few things she hadn’t aspired to but did anyway, such as experiencing depression and eating too many pretzels.
Singers in the cast closed the show with a finale that carried a hopeful message: “Better Days.”
Spain and her boyfriend, actor/director Kevin Craig West, who live together, were the only two performers able to interpret their essay together in the same space.
The piece, “Breathe,” by Lisa M. Barr, describes coronavirus as a potentially deadly and unwanted visitor that no one has time for, and suggests that those who survive should have an increased appreciation for life. “Breathe because you can. Breathe for those who no longer can. Simply breathe,” state its closing lines.
While the words apply to the coronavirus pandemic, they could just as easily describe the cancer experience — or the impetus behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Spain noted.
“I've been asked about the timing of the piece, and we actually filmed it before all the protests (related to the) Black Lives Matter (movement), and I feel blessed to have been able to bring this piece to life now, at a time when I think so many people need to hear it,” Spain said. “It's just a brilliant piece.”
Having read essays by some of the same authors across multiple years, Spain has had the chance to befriend some of them and their families. She gets emotional just recalling some of the works she’s read on their behalf.
One woman, “who can no longer speak due to her cancer, wrote a beautiful piece on how you don't realize how good things are until you no longer have them,” Spain said. “In her piece, she spoke about food that she used to like to eat and how she used to like to talk and sing, and she no longer can do these things. And so, while doing this piece, I realized that I was speaking and singing for her. I'm so moved by so many of the pieces.”
The founder and director of Visible Ink, Judith Kelman, noted that the pandemic did not put a damper on the ability of Visible Ink writers to create.
“Our participants have continued to flex their creativity and tell their stories,” she said. “The pieces and wonderful performances resonate powerfully during this unprecedented time.”
The show’s cast also included Bravo’s Andy Cohen; Broadway, film and television actress Randy Graff; and film and television actresses Diane Baker and Yvonne Perry. Writers included Claire Harris Turnick, Megan Hughes, Dorothea Biba Naouai, Bill Persky, Catherine Porter, William John Rostron, Karen Wexler and Mark Jason Williams.
To view the performance, visit youtube.com/watch?v=EiM5lTu56wY. To donate to Visible Ink, visit givevi.org/live.