Mass Cycle: A Meditation on Cancer

About the Production

Mass Cycle: A Meditation on Cancer by Vanderbilt Theater Lab, music by Spencer Channell*, and book revisions by Grace Montgomery* was presented twice at the Phoenix Theatre, in Interlochen, MI. The first production was performed on April 30, 2016, and was then further revised. The revised production (featuring many of the same cast members) took place on May 25, 2016.

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About the Play

mass \ˈmas\
noun (massive)
1 a quantity or aggregate of matter usually of considerable size (a cancerous mass)
2 a large body of persons in a group (a mass of actors, musicians, or audience members)
3 capitalized: a church service or religious ceremony with fixed words (see: liturgy), especially as a sacrament of the Holy Communion; also: a musical setting for the text of the Mass


cy·cle \ˈsī-kəl\
noun (cyclical)
1 a set of events or actions that happen again and again in the same order; also: a set of regular and repeated actions that are done by a machine as part of a longer process
2 an interval of time during which a sequence of events or phenomena is completed (a 4-year cycle of growth and development; a life cycle)
3 a group of creative works (as poems, plays, or songs) centered on the same theme

Cancer, the aptly dubbed “emperor of all maladies,” impacts the lives of people both around the world and close to home. Inspired by a current Vanderbilt student’s battle with stage IV ovarian cancer and the stories of many others, Vanderbilt Theater Lab created Mass Cycle: A Meditation on Cancer, an original, collaborative theater piece.

In Mass Cycle, scenes of hope, fear, triumph, loss, love, and absurdity are presented through a wide variety of narrative lenses. We seek to examine some of the numerous, multifaceted, emotional and physical complications presented by this age-old condition we are collectively just beginning to understand.

Performers

  • April 30, 2016
    • Kayla Behforouz (Piano)
    • Hadar Busia*
    • James Cockrell*
    • Hannah Eisendrath*
    • Miquel Fuentes (Cello)
    • Jeremy Gill*
    • Emera Gurath (Violin I)
    • Ethan Jones
    • Mark Mazzarella*
    • Kailee McGillis (Violin II)
    • Christiana Moyle*
    • William Price
    • Juanito Riveros (Harp)
    • Claire Satchwell (Viola)
    • Elizabeth Stater* (Swing)
    • Julia Steenstra*
  • May 25, 2016
    • Kayla Behforouz (Piano)
    • Hadar Busia*
    • James Cockrell*
    • Hannah Eisendrath*
    • Miquel Fuentes (Cello)
    • Emera Gurath (Violin I)
    • Mark Mazzarella*
    • Kailee McGillis (Violin II)
    • Christiana Moyle*
    • William Price
    • Juanito Riveros (Harp)
    • Claire Satchwell (Viola)
    • Elizabeth Stater* (Swing)
    • Julia Steenstra*
    • Nick Trivisonno*
    • Jonathon Qualls*

Creative Team

  • Yoni Weiss* (Director)
  • Spencer Channell* (Director, Composer, Sound Effects and Narration Tracks)

Production Team

  • Leah Cohen* (House Manager)
  • Jenna Koch* (Board Operator)

Director’s Notes by Spencer Channell

April 30th Performance

In late November, my brother called. I was pacing in the Harvey courtyard. It was chilly. He said he’s starting a theater group at Vandy. He said his friend is dying. He said our first show is gonna be for her…do you want to help?
Mass Cycle premiered four months later at Vanderbilt University to two nights of full houses — students, faculty, friends, and family. It was the inaugural production for Vanderbilt Theater Lab; a greeting and an introduction; a blazing illustration of collaborative theater in its truest, most sincere, and sometimes untidy form. But though messy, it was alive. Very much alive.
Once Yoni and I finished directing Elegies: A Song Cycle, we set right to work on MC:MC. The fascinating thing about Vanderbilt Theater Lab members is that they come from all different majors — engineering, philosophy, mathematics, music — and few have actual experience with dramatic writing. So, our first task was to evaluate the state of the script and to make revisions. We held a reading with the actors and (after realizing we needed a more skilled writer) invited Grace Montgomery to the creative team. Though tonight’s reading stays true to the situations and themes of the original script, it has been enriched and refined by Grace’s revisions, along with suggestions from Yoni, the cast, and myself.
Many of the situations MC:MC presents are VTL members’ actual experiences with cancer. Particularly, my music is based on interviews I recorded with my new friend, the 19-year-old Vandy student to whom this show is dedicated. The opening piece, which you will hear shortly, is meant to capture the cyclical, mechanical nightmare of the cancer treatment process, as well as her hope and persistence in the face of finality. The music’s harmonic contour reflects the shape of a heart (shown below) beating fifteen times, once for each of her fifteen rounds of chemotherapy.
More than anything, through this music and through this production, VTL, my fellow Interlochen students, and I have tried to give this young girl a voice; as she recently told me, “being a positive impact is all I could have wished for.” Thank you for being her audience, and for sharing in her story.

“I collabor him and he collabors me.” — George Furth, Merrily We Roll Along

May 25th Performance

… we presented our revised Mass Cycle at the end of April and, due to overwhelmingly positive student responses, we were invited to perform again during Festival. For this festival performance, we have further revised the script and music based largely on feedback from students. Though tonight’s reading stays true to the situations and themes of the original VTL script, it has been enriched and refined by Grace’s revisions, along with suggestions from Yoni, the cast, myself, and previous audience members.

Director’s Notes by Yoni Weiss

April 30th Performance

Collaboration is the heart of the theatrical process. For Mass Cycle, it has been a fulfilling collaboration among theatre, composition, creative writing, music, and motion picture arts students. On this campus, it is rare to find true voluntary collaboration spreading across so many different majors mostly due to our full schedules. Here, we have found the opportunity as students to join together and create. Between writer Grace Montgomery, composer Spencer Channell, and theatre major me, I feel the power of a successful collaboration not only between us, but with the Vanderbilt students who have shared their stories, and the creative inputs of our fellow Interlochen students.
It is easier to understand why we do this (as in, why we do art) when there are expressions that must be shared at a specific time and place. Cancer as a whole is too large to comprehend or cope with in an hour and a half. What Mass Cycle does so brilliantly is focus on a microcosm of people dealing with the non-medical effects of cancer: the human relationship to disease. Often, we distance ourselves from discussing ovarian cancer, brain tumors, and the idea of death. For these characters, cancer is a part of their everyday lives. They need not hush their voices when discussing chemotherapy or incessant vomiting. Their every move is affected by their relationship to what is (or is not) inside their bodies.
As people, we often silence these voices — with pity, excuses, distance, and with the notion that cancer is a fight to a finish line instead of a marathon that continues eternally. We “heart boobies” or wear pink, and maybe someone knows a friend who has died, or a lover, or a grandparent. Your personal relationship to cancer is different than that of the person seated next to you now. We must look past the medical cancer and to the personal cancer — to our relationships with those diagnosed, our distance from disease through humor, response to death, life, etc. This is what Mass Cycle hopes to explore, and I truly believe it does so extremely well. We bring Mass Cycle here as a reading with four rehearsals because we knew that this story needed to be told. I am grateful and excited to be able to share these voices with you.

“The last collaborator is your audience, so you’ve got to wait ‘til the last collaborator comes in before you can complete the collaboration.” — Stephen Sondheim

May 25th Performance

… We bring Mass Cycle back to campus, newly revised, and with only one rehearsal, because we knew that this story needed to be told. I am grateful and excited to be able to share these voices with you. I would like to dedicate this production to Noam Carmen, Susan Boyes, and Susan Schonberger.

Bookwriter’s Notes by Grace Montgomery

May 25th Performance

Perhaps in contrast to the physical collaboration of theatre, the bulk of the writing process takes place in private. I spend hours sitting at my computer and leaning over my notebooks, moving words around the page. It’s a quiet, internal process. However, in revising Mass Cycle, my process also required hours of listening. I listened first to recorded versions of Spencer’s compositions, then to his discussions of MC:MC, VTL, and of his own music. I then sat in on rehearsal, listening along to our talented actors’ interpretations and Yoni’s direction of my early drafts. I also attended music rehearsal alongside Spencer, experiencing the process of a mixed chamber ensemble — something entirely new to me, and fascinating to watch.
Throughout these discussions and experiences, I sat in corners with my script and a pen. My job was to solidify the script in terms of craft; to rearrange, reimagine, and recontextualize. Visually, my drafts were an absolute mess: entirely handwritten, running into one another, scribbled into margins and between lines. Revising this script has been a conversation — a give and take between myself and my collaborators, myself and the page.
And truly, I’ve come to the conclusion that dialogue is what this show is all about — to have any hope of dealing with tragedy, we must engage in conversation. Like my drafting, it is messy and tiring, but by the end, I sincerely hope we can all learn to be a bit more compassionate.
I am beyond humbled and grateful to be part of this production and hope that it will be as meaningful for you as it has been for all of us.

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