Cancer journeys start with a diagnosis. Usually, that’s a very private moment.
Brianna Barrett’s cancer journey started with her filming her diagnosis.
Barrett was 24 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma during a Christmas 2012 visit home to Portland. Barrett then lived in Los Angeles and was pursuing a career in television writing.
When Barrett’s doctor called that winter, she figured she could flip whatever bad news he had into better news by making a tale out of it. Her idea turned into a series of short videos on YouTube called “Welcome to Cancerland,” where she filmed things like getting a bone marrow biopsy.
“I made it this kind of adventure. I gave myself something to do to keep me busy and keep me interested,” Barrett said. “It was gross and awful, but also I was very interested in making it not that. When you’re committed to making something very funny and very interesting, you can make that out of any experience.”
Barrett, who’s now 31 and lives in Portland with no evidence of cancer left, has returned to cancer storytelling with a play she wrote called “After this Episode,” which debuts at Camas High School on Friday night as the school’s annual fundraiser play for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
There will be a raffle basket fundraiser accompanying the production, and a presentation by Barrett, Camas High School Drama Program Director Sean Kelly and Dr. Kathryn Kolibaba of Compass Oncology.
If You Go
What: “After this Episode.”
Where: Camas High School, 26900 S.E. 15th St., Camas.
When: Doors open at 6:30 p.m., play begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Price: $14 for adults, $7 for students, $5 for children under 12; purchase tickets at https://events.lls.org/pages/oswim/CamasPlay.
Fundraiser: There will be a raffle basket fundraiser at the show. Proceeds benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
While Barrett has documented her own cancer journey through film, “After this Episode” is a different undertaking. The play isn’t about Barrett; it was written from a mixture of the cancer experiences she’s heard about and seen during her life.
“We don’t see a lot of narratives that are hopeful or well-rounded or from the perspective of the person with cancer themselves. And I think that leaves a lot of gaps in our understanding of cancer and the way that we otherize people in that experience, and the way that we miss that survivorship has a lot of nuance, and that people don’t exist in this binary of curable and incurable,” Barrett said. “That’s important to me with this play. An audience is going to see somebody who is not cured of cancer, but who is very much alive and lively throughout the play.”
“After this Episode” focuses on Rae, a high school senior, who is diagnosed with brain cancer and becomes restricted to her hospital room. She “watches as life goes by,” as Barrett explains, and misses out on prom and the general senior year experience. Rae’s parents are mostly absent, and Rae’s sister has to abandon medical school aspirations to take care of her.
Rae’s outside world experiences are confined to social media, FaceTime and other technological outlets. She sees what others are experiencing, but feels left out. Barrett said she was trying to get at the isolation cancer patients feel, and the universal isolation we can all feel, especially in the age of the internet, which Barrett said has caused “difficulty with one-on-one communication.”
“My hope is the audience will be relieved to find that they are not watching a play that’s about death. They’re not watching a play that’s sad,” Barrett said. “They’re watching a play that’s about high school, that’s about family and about having crushes on boys and being jealous of your friends. It’s not something that is inaccessible to people who haven’t lived that experience.”
Kelly, who is directing the play, said 24 students are working the production with him. Kelly said Barrett’s writing is an exercise in “what people say and don’t say to each other.”
“Her characters are super-relatable and they’re very real,” Kelly continued. “There’s no place in the script where I felt like we had to force anything. The kids are able to come to the material honestly.”
Barrett said a major theme in the play is how “challenging it is to say what you really mean, especially to the people you love.”
“Sometimes it’s easier to bare your soul on the internet to an audience whose eyes you don’t have to look into, but when someone you love is asking you how you’re doing, sometimes you don’t want to say that, or want to but can’t,” she said.
Kelly said every play the school does is important, but he did note the fundraiser play has a special fulfillment to it.
“This is a different project because it’s our opportunity to return something to the community and use our powers for good,” he said.