Stories of breast cancer

SoLow Fest 2019: Neé Danse/Theatre presents ‘Holding One’s Own’

3 minute read
Stronger with each story shared: ensemble members of ‘Holding One’s Own.’ (Photo courtesy of Della M. Cowall.)
Stronger with each story shared: ensemble members of ‘Holding One’s Own.’ (Photo courtesy of Della M. Cowall.)

Holding One’s Own, performed in Clifton Heights as part of SoLow Fest 2019, is based on stories from women living with breast cancer, “speaking to their strength, resiliency, and deep appreciation for those who surround them, as they meet each day on their own terms.”

Going to church

The audience filtered into Clifton Heights United Methodist Church and conversations slowly picked up around me as people found their seats. The acoustics of a church really encourage the practice of “hearing the word of your neighbor.” A friendly group of women were laughing and trading remedies for the deep, to-the-bone chills that accompany radiation treatment.

One said a hot shower was the only way she could shake the symptoms. Another recommended layering sweaters that could be shed once the internal cold snap passed. The lights dimmed and we quieted in anticipation of the performers. The performance was under way, but the storytelling had already begun.

Stronger with each story shared

“Women thrive in environments that allow them to talk and listen to others about the disease invading their bodies,” the playbill read. “They grow stronger mentally, emotionally and physically with each story shared.” The inspiration for Holding One’s Own came from West Chester’s Unite for Her, a resource that helps women battling cancer connect and find companionship. The show centered around a class of women flowing through a yoga practice while each revealing her own fears, hopes, and small victories against the disease.

The stage direction did an exceptional job of transporting the viewer into the hospital room. One woman spoke up to describe the odd sensation of a PET scan, and her classmates twisted themselves around her, forming a circle of arms to cradle the narrator. The scan uses a special dye containing radioactive tracers, which are either swallowed, inhaled, or injected into a vein in your arm. The rhythmic group breath of the yoga practice continued throughout her story, functioning as a narrative metronome.

Fully transported

As with any group of women sharing their experiences, razor-sharp wit and dark, painful jokes emerged. One monologue titled “Suppressing My Hormones” described a patient who realizes her treatment has led to a spike in both her testosterone levels and her beard-growing abilities.

Another actor delivered a gut-wrenching account of a patient unable to tell her own mother of her cancer diagnosis. The problem isn’t a strained relationship—her mother has Alzheimer’s and can’t remember her own daughter at all. The narrator mourned the fact that she cannot find comfort with the person she loves most in the world.

There were too many extraordinary moments in the performance to list them all. I felt myself fully transported into the punishing and triumphant worlds of these women, curated from real story circles with the permission of the original storytellers. The final act of the show brings each actor back to her original pose of the yoga practice.

The invitation went out to everyone in the audience to follow along with their own breath or movement for a few yoga poses. A very specific seated yoga routine began around me. Raise your head, chin up, exhale, inhale, left arm up, exhale, twist, repeat. I looked around. Half of the audience was following the practice exactly, movements that were clearly familiar and healing. I had been watching the show with the very women who had lent their stories.

Returning this year

Holding One's Own: Stories about Living with Breast Cancer will be workshopped in a weeklong residency this fall. A creative ensemble of actors, musicians, movement/dance artists, and playwrights assembled for the residency will produce a new iteration of the work for performance later this year.

Story Circles for breast-cancer survivors will continue to be held over the next few months, and written story submissions are encouraged. For more information or to send written or video stories, email [email protected], where comments and suggestions from breast-cancer survivors are welcome.

What, When, Where

Holding One’s Own: Stories About Living with Breast Cancer. Devised by Neé Danse/Theatre for the 2019 SoLow Fest. June 15, 2019, at Clifton Heights United Methodist Church, 111 S. Springfield Road, Clifton Heights, PA.

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