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Laughing at cancer

Many actors reprise former roles, but Bruce Horak can be said to “relapse” his most notorious role.

Many actors reprise former roles, but Bruce Horak can be said to “relapse” his most notorious role.

The idea of performing as cancer incarnate first surfaced when the Toronto-based performer was playing in a clown show as a grotesque demon who had come up from hell to try and seduce an audience member.

Before a performance, Horak was told that he needed to change the character’s name.

“Divine inspiration, I just said, ‘Why don’t I call myself Cancer and we’ll see how it goes — see if I can get an audience member to come home with Cancer,” said Horak.

“There was a bunch of comedians on the bill that night and they all freaked out and said that I would get the shit kicked out of me — pardon my French,” he said.

Yet Horak remembered the words of one of his mentors; “go where the fear is.”

“That’s where real art and real truth is going to come and the best projects are going to come out of you facing your own fear,” said Horak.

As a performer, Horak had to face the fear that a risky subject of personifying cancer could fall flat with the audience.

Cancer has also been a large part of Horak’s own life.

The Toronto performer was diagnosed with cancer of the eye at a very young age, forcing his right eye to be removed and losing most of the vision in his left. While cancer free today, Horak is legally blind.

And just five years ago, he lost his father to cancer.

That night in Toronto, however, Horak took an illness and transformed it into a star.

“The response from the audience was just amazing, I had people coming up to me and saying they had just come out of chemotherapy, or that they had just lost a parent and that they had finally been able to laugh at cancer,” said Horak.

“Facing my own fear and confronting something was really an opportunity for the audience to share that.”

A character was born, and soon, with the collaboration of director Rebecca Northan, Cancer was drafted into its own one-man show.

Going on almost three years of performances, This is Cancer? has prompted waves of split personality responses from audience members.

“I laughed and cried ... I have never experienced anything quite like it,” read one anonymous online comment.

“It’s a push-pull throughout the whole thing,” said Horak.

Horak summed up the typical audience response.

“‘At first it was uncomfortable and disquieting, and then it was really funny, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, I’m laughing at cancer,’ then you realize, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be laughing at that,’ and then there’s a another joke and you’re laughing again,” said Horak.

On one hand, This is Cancer? is definitely humourous.

“The arrogance and egotistical nature that Cancer has is funny, because we’re juxtaposing two different ideas, in that Cancer believes he is loved, and yet the world obviously hates him,” said Horak.

“A big part of how the character is designed is that it is absurd, and it gives the audience permission to laugh.”

Horak notes that his show addresses a subject that, although hugely prevalent in society, is still very taboo to mention.

“We never talked about cancer, we never said the word; it was always whispered, it was always hushed — even though so many people were getting it nobody was talking about it,” older audience members have told Horak following his show.

Just gaze at any obituary section of a newspaper, and cancer deaths will often be described only as a “long illness.”

“It’s like a disrespect or something, there’s not a dignity to it,” said Horak.

In a sense, This is Cancer? presents a more grounded and personable image of the illness, removing it of its spectral horror.

Horak’s costume for the character is big in lumps and bumps, “kind of grotesque — but in a cuddly sort of way,” said Horak.

“Whatever you imagine cancer to look like, this is not it,” he said.

The Calgary Herald described the personality of Cancer as a cross between Austin Powers and Dean Martin.

Horak thinks he’s more akin to Sammy Davis Jr. — an all-around performer.

Cancer also draws from David Bowie and Mick Jagger’s physicality and strutting tendencies.

“The director referred to it as naked ego on parade,” said Horak.

“A friend of mine, their parent had been diagnosed with cancer, and she said, ‘The first thing I thought about when I heard that my dad had been diagnosed with cancer is that goofy character you did, and we kind of smiled about it,’” said Horak.

“There was a tiny little old lady who came and saw the show, and said, ‘It may sound funny, but I kind of want to get cancer after tonight because you’re so charming,’” he said.

“If people have gotten past the denial, have gotten past the bargaining, and the depression and all of that and they can get to the point where they can accept it and laugh about it; it means they have a little bit of distance to it and there’s a new perspective on it — which is what, I hope, this show gives people,” he said.

Through the goofiness and absurdity, however, the show winds through a very serious and moving storyline.

This is Cancer? addresses the cancer stories of Horak’s own family — but from the illness’ perspective.

Horak is a professional clown, but discard any images you may have of the traditional make-upped, big-shoed, Ronald McDonald archetype.

“Clown is such a bad reputation — it’s like a dirty word. We have this stigma of circus clowns and birthday clowns,” said Horak.

“(Cancer) is a modern clown, instead of the stereotypical birthday clown that everybody wants to hit with a hose.”

Horak’s trade is the modern, theatrical clown, “it’s much darker, it’s much more adult, takes a lot more risks and is also a lot more audience interactive in a way — but not to the extent that we’re going to make people feel stupid and silly and hate the performer,” said Horak.

Clowning is resurging in contemporary performing arts, with more artists “using the clown form to create some really interesting and unique work,” he said.

“Borat is essentially a dark clown,” said Horak, referring to the anti-semitic Kazachstani reporter played by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

“Mike Myers uses a lot of clownish stuff, and Jim Carrey — that very physical performance style that’s a little bit over the top, but is still grounded in a little bit of truth,” he said.

The basis of modern clowning is a performer’s awareness of the audience and vice versa. At a stage performance of Macbeth, for instance, a ringing cellphone will be grudgingly tolerated, yet ignored. A clown, on the other hand, will incorporate the phone into the performance.

 “The essence of the clown is that there’s this conversation with the audience … as an audience you’re aware of the performer, and you’re aware that they’re aware of you,” said Horak.

In This is Cancer?, the traditional “fourth wall” of the theater is taken down. Horak calls his show a “dialogue,” and nurtures an environment where audience participation is key, and spectators feel free to share their own stories after the show.

Among colleagues in the Toronto performing arts scene, Horak’s unconventional and daring approach in This is Cancer? is often deemed “insane.”

“Most performers have been brought up, and aspire to do, conventional, typical fourth wall kind theatre,” he said.

“And the idea of going out without a script, and having a conversation with the audience and relating real, bare bones personal stuff and allowing the audience to do that terrifies them.”

“I’m kind of an adrenaline junkie, so that, to me, is the essence of performing,” said Horak.

This is Cancer? is playing the Old Fire Hall from Wednesday through Saturday, October 18. Tickets are $18, and can be purchased at Arts Underground, Well-Read Books and at the door.