A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer

Ashleigh Went

What should you not say to someone’s who has cancer?

It’s the very first line in The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer trailer, and it brings to light the very foundation of the production, which is coming to Canberra Theatre Centre on 1 March.

It commands an answer to the question: how do we, as individuals and as a society, deal with cancer?

If you’re Writer and Director Bryony Kimmings you make a musical about life with a cancer diagnosis, starring real life cancer patients.

Unconventional? Perhaps—but Bryony is no stranger to taboo topics, having covered everything from STIs, to mental health, to addiction. In the context of her work, it’s little surprise that she’s chosen to tackle an issue that we fear so deeply, yet affects so many of us.

What is it about these typically off-limits topics that Bryony finds so fascinating?

“I think I am a working-class loudmouth,” she says. “If I don’t believe something is just or logical, I call it out. Later in life I realised this makes me an activist.”

Like many artists, Bryony draws on her own life for inspiration.

“My life dictates the subject matter of my work. It always comes from a personal place. My partner had mental health problems and was ashamed to speak about it, so we made a show to try and do our little bit to change that.”

This time around, Bryony worked with real cancer patients in developing the show. Rather than simply influencing the production, Bryony said that working with these people was the point of the show.

“It’s the intrinsic learning from patients” she explains. “Asking them how they wanted to talk about cancer. Their voices and their opinions and them in the flesh are in the show.”

“I interviewed 50-odd women, seeking the stories you don’t see in the movies, to tell the honest truth.”

On the surface, it might seem strange to tackle such a serious issue with humour, but Bryony approaches it in her signature style.

“I have a dark sense of humour but I’m also a very emotionally astute woman. I know my balance. I think if you don’t laugh in these hard and tragic situations, you cry. Even in the darkest times we find the light. That’s what humans do. Plus, I check the humour with the people it concerns—with cancer I checked things with patients.”

One of the things that becomes immediately obvious when speaking to Bryony, or seeing snippets of the show, is that there is no one correct way to deal with cancer.

“I hadn’t been around cancer that much, but it was nice to define and elaborate on that gut feeling that this brave war we fight is mostly bullshit that shuts down real conversations. It’s just language invented by people to stop cancer being scary. Sometimes people choose to battle and fight. That’s cool—whatever works for you.”

While Bryony says that the show is “an entertaining night out” and “a profound art experience”, audiences walk away with so much more, including “a new way of speaking to cancer patients, the opportunity to feel heard.”

So far, the result from audiences has been “phenomenal.”

“Lots of tears and standing ovations, lots of emails and Facebook messages. I think we speak to many people with experiences of illness that sit outside how it is usually depicted in culture. And that feels great as it means my job is done.”

With a resume that includes mentor, teacher, writer, spear, artist, comedian and more—you can’t help but wonder what’s next for Bryony.

“I am writing my first sol0 in a decade. I decided there weren’t enough female ones at scale. I’m very angry with the way the planet is going, I’m also post-huge trauma and ready to talk about coming up from rock bottom. My son has been extremely ill, forever changed. And I want to talk about female strength.”

The essentials
What: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer
Where: The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre
When:1-3 March 2018
Tickets: Adult tickets from $69, book online.

Images by Mark Douet


Ashleigh Went

Ashleigh Went has a passion for all things health and wellness. She’s currently furthering her studies in nutrition, but also has a Bachelor of Communication and is a qualified fitness instructor with over five years experience working in a gym. Among other things, she’s a lover of great food, coffee and fashion. She can usually be found shopping for activewear, in the gym or updating her Instagram @wentworthavenue More about the Author

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