28 Sep 2015

The Quiet Room

From Here Now, 3:30 pm on 28 September 2015

By Lynda Chanwai-Earle

When do we take responsibility for our own lives and at what moment do we become adults? Renee Liang, Playwright

When you’re a teenager and you’ve got cancer, humour is one way to cope.

The theatre production The Quiet Room is a darkly humourous, but uplifting, story about a teenager grappling with leukaemia, that has just opened at BATS theatre in Wellington in partnership with Canteen, an organisation supporting youth with cancer.

I’m in the intimate studio space at BATS recording the cast and crew in action before their big night. While dodging bits of hospital equipment (props) and a wheelchair I ask the cast their thoughts on each of their characters.

Stevie Hancox-Monk plays central character Marianne - a teenager dealing with life and death questions before her time.

"I really admire her strength and resilience with such an illness, she’s admirable. I think it’s about quality of life rather than quantity of life.

"My Dad's had cancer twice and my mum used to make jokes all the time, the only way to cope was to make jokes about it."

Marianne’s upcoming 16th birthday is coloured by the fact that she is legally able to make her own decisions about her medical treatment.

“But her mother and doctor have their own opinions. And then there’s Philip, the cute guy in the next hospital bed…”

The lighter moments of comedy are delivered by the teenage protagonists, such as Philip who is played by Wellington actor Michael Hebenton.

"I met one of the Canteen members Mona- he was really cool. I asked what they wanted to see on stage because their stories are really empowering.  He was telling me they often make dark jokes, I asked permission and he said go for it mate, go hard."

Both the writer and director are Asian New Zealanders bringing their personal stories to this play. Director Jane Yonge, who created the recent Capital 150 Wellington Anniversary hit Page Turners, lost her own mother to breast cancer.

"It was a slow battle. It was all the waiting around, interminable waiting in hospital waiting rooms watching my mother die. That’s what I wanted to convey somehow with the staging, with actors ever present throughout, waiting on the sidelines.

"Sickness turns relationships into something more intense."

The Quiet Room was a finalist for the Adam Awards 2013 and winner of Playmarket’s Plays for the Young 2014. Playwright Renee Liang wrote this piece from her personal experiences a pediatrician with Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland.

“I was inspired to write this play by my work as a paediatrician,” Liang says.

"I wanted to work through the big questions in life, some of the big calls that are not always ours to make, the life and death questions.

"At what stage do you as a mother or as a professional trust someone to make their own decisions about their life? For me the play is about agency - taking control of your life, in the context as a teenager.

"In popular culture hospitals are hardly ever portrayed the way they really are in reality. Doctors are stereotyped as god-like and cold, they're not. I'm trying to break down some of these ideas."

The play is set at Star ship Children’s Hospital in Auckland Vanessa Rhodes plays Dr Elaine Leigh, a paediatric oncologist.

Vanessa tells me her character is a workaholic and that during the work-shopping of the play it was invaluable to have Renee as playwright. Vanessa found that there were many more grey areas within the current medical treatment of seriously ill patients and this came as a bit of shock to her.

Trained at Rada in London, Isobel Moebus plays Rachel, Marianne’s mother. Isobel is a mother of teenagers herself and she tells me she could really relate to the struggles experienced by this character, a single working mother facing the loss of her daughter.

$2 from every ticket sold goes to Canteen, an organisation which supports young New Zealanders living with cancer through peer support programmes, counselling, leadership development, recreational activities and much more. Further funds will be raised at a gala evening, which will include an opportunity to hear true stories of cancer first hand from teenagers.

Canteen members are supporting the creative team and actors by advising and feeding back on rehearsals, and getting involved backstage.

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep a poem from the 1930’s by Mary Elizabeth Frye is set to music by Thomas Lambert, it’s also the theme song for The Quiet Room performed by Stevie Hancox-Monk.

And The Quiet Room will perform at BATS theatre, Wellington until 3 October and the book Cancer and all that other shit written by Lauren Wepa, a young cancer survivor was launched at a special event at BATS in tandem with the play is available at booksellers now.

It’s a way to look at the subject from a different angle, to tell the story differently. Our young people will be excited to see their lives reflected on stage, and we are happy to help make this show authentic.

The Quiet Room