Hiram College

Stages: Cancer in the Arts

Eric Coble and Laurie Frey

On September 25, 2007, at noon, in the Kennedy Center Ballroom, award-winning Cleveland playwright Eric Coble and cancer-survivor Laurie Frey described their collaboration in creating the musical Unbeatable, A Musical Journey.  Supported by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the musical is anticipating production off Broadway this fall.  But a musical about breast cancer?  According to Kerry Clawson of the Akron Beacon Journal, this one works.  The lead character, Tracy, a bustling business woman, is suddenly stopped in her tracks by her cancer diagnosis and gradually learns the true value of the time we have.

Eric Coble won the Cleveland Arts Prize in the spring of 2007; he has many others, including the AT&T Onstage Award, National Theater Conference Playwriting Award, and two Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards.  The Center for Literature and Medicine at Hiram has commissioned him to do two projects: a play based on E.M. Forster’s short story, The Machine Stops, performed as a radio play on WCPN, and the script for the ballet Luis, based on Richard Selzer’s story of the same name.  He has also participated in several Center symposia.

Laurie Frey has worked in entertainment for the past 20 years, specifically in theater management.  Her work on Broadway includes Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and Fiddler on the Roof.  She is currently general manager for illusionist David Copperfield’s tours and the Blue Man Group Megastar tours.  Her experience is the basis for the lead character, Tracy, who is a stage-three cancer survivor.

Sarah’s Daughters

On September 28 and 29, 2007, Hiram presented two performances of the play Sarah’s Daughters by Candadian physician-playwright Jeff Nisker at 7:30 pm in the Frohring Art Building.  Hiram senior theater major, Kelly Hanahan, played the role of a woman who lives for 20 years in fear of developing breast cancer as her mother did, and Hiram cellist Emma Strong accompanied her.  The play explores the many personal and family issues of breast cancer, and the genetic inheritance of strong susceptibilty to the disease.

Jeff Nisker is Coordinator of Health Ethics and Humanities and Professor of Obstetrics-Gynaecology and Oncology at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, University of Western Ontario (UWO).  His research is transdisciplinary, centering on public engagement, particularly regarding emerging genetic technologies.  Similarly, his educational initiatives embrace the humanities and social sciences, such as in his narrative bioethics and health ethics through film courses.  Nisker has written many scientific articles and book chapters, as well as six plays and several short stores to explore health issues and encourage compassion in health care.  His plays have been performed throughout Canada, as well as in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and South Africa.  Nisker has previously participated in several programs of the Center for Literature and Medicine.

Jeff Nisker

On October 4, 2007 at noon in the Kennedy Center, Canadian physician-playwright Jeff Nisker (Sarah’s Daughters) discussed the use of theater to raise audience awareness of health care issues that may impact their lives.  He referred not only to Sarah’s Daughters but also to his play Orchids, which is about pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) that allows prospective parents to select for embryos that do not carry certain genetic diseases.  That play, performed across Canada, helped the government determine what its public policy would be about PGD.


On November 1-3, 2007, at 7:30 pm in Hayden Auditorium, Hiram College’s fall theater production featured Wit, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson about a tough-minded literature scholar dying of ovarian cancer.  Ironically, she encounters clinical trial researchers who treat her much the same way she treated her students.  She learns that intelligence and discipline are not sufficient for a meaningful life, and that, like all of us, she needs caring, human relationships.  The play was also made into an award-winning movie starring Emma Thompson.  Hiram alumna Heather Anderson is returned to the college to perform the lead role.

Tom Batiuk, Creator of Funky Winkerbean

On November 29, 2007, at 7:30 pm, in the Kennedy Center Ballroom, Tom Batiuk, creator of the unflinching comic strip, Funky Winkerbean, spoke at an evening convocation.  His comic strip characters experience some rough times, including life-threatening illness.  In 1999 Lisa Moore, one of Funky’s friends and a main character, discovered she had breast cancer.  After a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she was cancer free, became a lawyer and had a daughter, Summer. In the spring of 2006 the cancer returned and metastasized.  Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe will be published in October 2007 as the twelfth book in the Kent State Press “Literature and Medicine” Series, edited by Hiram faculty Carol Donley and Martin Kohn.  Batiuk will discuss his Funky Winkerbean series about Lisa.  Copies of Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe will be available at the convocation for purchase and for Batiuk to sign.

Tom Batiuk is a graduate of Kent State University.  His comic strips Funky Winkerbean and Crankshaft, which he creates with Chuck Ayers, are carried in more than 400 newspapers throughout the United States.  In 2006, he was honored by the American Cancer Society and presented its Cancer Care Hall of Fame Award for his sympathetic work in highlighting experiences of those with cancer.