Seeing cancer in a ridiculous light

Bruce Horak  personifies cancer in This is Cancer at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre on Saturday, Jan. 26. - Photo submitted
Bruce Horak personifies cancer in This is Cancer at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre on Saturday, Jan. 26.
— image credit: Photo submitted

If cancer could speak, this is what he’d say: Cigarettes, “love ‘em!”; trans fats, “tasty”, microwaves; “go ahead, knock yourself out."

In fact, he does say these things in his egotistical, British accented, wink-wink kind of way as personified by a guy dressed in a one-piece spandex leotard, stretched out by bulging tumours, and a skin the pallor of a melted yellow wax crayon.

Developed and performed by Bruce Horak, This is Cancer is a one-man satirical cabaret where cancer is a deluded, egotistical ass, who believes that humanity is in love with him.

But before you think that sounds rather grim or absolutely ridiculous, audiences should know about the journey that has brought cancer to the stage, including to the Vernon Performing Arts Centre on Jan. 26.

“The show came from me asking a lot of questions and doing research about what is cancer. It’s basically abnormal cells growing out of control. I mean, how human is that?” said Horak, who has become a bit of a regular in these parts.

Now living in Vancouver, some locals may recognize him from the recent production of Monster Theatre’s A Christmas Carol or as the egotistical constable Bull Withers from this past summer’s Caravan Farm Theatre production of The Notorious Robber Right and His Robber Bride.

Also a painter, Horak was in Kelowna last weekend to see the opening of an art exhibition by visually impaired artists that he is participating in.

One of Canada’s only legally blind actors, Horak has met cancer in its ugliest forms, losing most of his sight as a child to retina blastoma, but he hasn’t let it stop him from embodying cancer, uncovering all its many facets and the emotions it evokes –– warts and all.

It was when he was 13 that Horak, raised in Calgary, learned about the disease that took his left eye and most of the sight out of his right eye.

“My mom explained to me how I lost my vision, how I had cancer in both my eyes when I was a baby. I always wore thick glasses and I was legally blind, but I tried to fit in to the sighted world. Sometimes I wished I had lost my eyes entirely.”

Horak would also find out that his disease was genetic. His dad had had retina blastoma in one eye.

“He didn’t know this until my diagnosis and he had a breakdown when he found out he had passed cancer to his kid,” said Horak. “The chance of his passing his disease on to his kids was one in four. The chance of me passing it on is 50/50.”

Unfortunately for Horak’s father the recurrence of cancer, which is always at the back of a cancer patient’s mind, became a reality when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2003 on what would be Horak’s 29th birthday.

“I was on stage in Saskatoon at the time,” said Horak, who spent that final year of his father’s life as an observer and companion.

“My dad was a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic and rather conservative. After junior high I became a questioner, and later went on to explore Chinese healing, Chi Gong and meditation,” said Horak. “After my dad’s diagnosis, he opened up to that. My favourite picture of my dad is him doing Chi Gong in the backyard. He was also cynical and had a great sense of humour. He used to draw cartoons of cancer.”

Horak was living in Toronto at the time of his father’s death. At first angry, he ended up using his humour, like his father had, as a coping mechanism.

He studied clowning in Toronto under Michael Kennard and John Turner, better known as Mump and Smoot, and applied to be a therapeutic clown at the Hospital for Sick Children.

“I thought I would have liked to have something like this when I spent all that time in and out of hospital through my childhood and in my 20s. It ended up being a traumatic experience.”

It was around then that cancer came back into his life — in a very strange, but wonderful way.

It was while he was part of a clown cabaret in Toronto, playing a demonic character named Foof, that another well-known clown in the audience said she objected to the use of his name, as her’s was Foo.

“She felt it was too close, so I had to come up with something else quickly. That’s when it came to me. I said ‘call me cancer.’ And I based this piece on trying to get an audience member to take cancer home with her. I was told ‘you can’t do this.’ But then I remembered what my mentors (Jennard and Turner) had said, ‘you have to go where the fear is and put it on the stage...’ My adrenaline was so high I don’t remember anything about being out there for 10 minutes. And then this guy grabbed me and said he was battling cancer, and he was laughing.”

Another audience member who saw the performance asked Horak if he would perform at a cancer fundraiser she was holding.

And so cancer was born.

The show has developed in bits and pieces since that first improv performance with the help of Horak’s partner, director/actress Rebecca Northan, and has since gone on to be a Fringe Festival hit. And it’s probably the only show where an audience member can get on stage and beat cancer — with a pool noodle!

“The show has been challenging and rewarding,” said Horak, adding there has been very few detractors offended by him making fun of a horrible, emotional, life-taking disease, well, except for that one guy who was enraged and actually punched Horak after a Vancouver performance.

“It really depends on where people are in their acceptance. Those who are angry and in denial shouldn’t see a show called This is Cancer. I could have been sneaky or duplicitous about the show’s title, but that wouldn’t be fair.

“I don’t want to do shock humour, and there is an element of a positive message in the show. We’re all going to die, and not just from cancer. We can live it by being angry and by being a jerk or we can live it with lightness and love.”

What keeps Horak going as he enters the seventh year of playing cancer is the memories of his father, whom he says would have loved the show if he’d been alive to see it.

“I listen to my dad dictating his obituary on a recording I have after almost every show. It used to haunt and drain me, but now I think it’s beautiful,” he said. “I am also grateful to theatres in places like Vernon, Kelowna and Kamloops who are willing to bring in a show called This is Cancer. It can be a huge risk. But as long as they are willing to program it, and that it affects people in some way, then I’ll keep doing it.”

This is Cancer is part of the Vernon Performing Arts Centre’s theatre series. It takes the stage Saturday, Jan. 26 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30/adult, $27/senior, $25/student, $5/eyeGO, available at the Ticket Seller box office, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca. Warning: the show contains coarse language and mature subject matter.


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