ONE OF THESE is not real. Can you tell which?"
So begins Susan Millerís My Left Breast, an Obie AwardĖwinning one-woman play about the writerís struggle with ó and ultimate triumph over ó breast cancer. Miller, whose other work includes Nasty Rumors and Final Remarks (also an Obie winner), received the Blackburn Prize for best play written about a woman in the English language for Breast, which she also performs.
And sheíll perform it in Boston on April 11, in a partnership between the New Repertory Theatre and the Wellness Community. At the end of the performance, sheíll do what she always does as the lights begin to dim: sheíll unbutton her shirt to reveal the scar from her mastectomy. But although itís a powerful moment, Miller says exposing herself physically is just one of the ways that My Left Breast seeks to unite people in their common ó or uncommon ó experiences with life transitions.
Q: Whyíd you originally decide to write a play about your experiences with breast cancer?
A: It didnít come from wanting so much to chronicle anything. It was just ó there was a period of time when a few themes coalesced, and I didnít want to write anything that didnít have some kind of literary metaphor and that also didnít resonate in a much broader way, for myself and for an audience. So it was a time of turning a certain age, of my son turning a certain age, the end of a relationship, and suddenly I felt like I was kind of in the world again, new, almost kind of raw, and it just forced me to look at things in a new way. And so when these things came together, and I was able to also have a sense of humor and irony, then I was able to write about "it," because it wasnít just about "it."
Q: How do you make such a personal experience interesting to a diverse audience?
A: Well, you know, itís turned out to be incredibly successful, and also being performed by other people all over the place. I think the key, really, is in the humanity and access to somebodyís flaws and relationships, so that any member of the audience, whether itís a man or a woman or a young person, can access some part of it for him- or herself. People deal with shifts in their lives, and I think are very interested in how other people deal with them. So I think thatís the way in.
Q: How was the process of writing this play different from the process of writing your other plays?
A: It was different in a sense because it came out in a certain prose form, and because I knew I was going to perform it. So in that sense, in the sense that I wasnít moving a lot of different characters around, it was different. On the one hand, there was a freedom, but also an awareness that this is entertainment; this has to speak to people.
Q: How do you feel about the comparisons that have been made between My Left Breast and Wit? Do you think those are fair?
A: I think itís natural for people to ... both plays are written by women, the central character in that piece dies, and I have to say, I know this is going to sound strange, but in the audience when I went to see Wit, the same sort of absolute connection that I find with people in my audiences existed, and people had come back to see the play many times, and that has happened with me as well, but the difference in Wit is that her personal relationships werenít explored; she was a character without any; that was part of who she was. And this is whatís going to sound strange: I think, because she dies, we are more free, we are allowed, to project on her. We donít have to get into her messy life, or disapprove of any of it, or say, "Well, I wouldnít do that." And also, I think you see the character coming to grips with that, which is of course the most extreme thing we all have to deal with in our lives. In my piece, Iím saying, "Here I am, flaws and all, and Iím here as long as I can be, continuing."
Q: How long have you been cancer-free?
A: Twenty-one years. Iím knocking wood here.
Q: Is it something you think of every day?
A: No. No. I think in the beginning, of course I did, when I was younger and so worried about my son, really, and wanting so much to be with him and be well for him and have him in my life. Maybe Iím fortunate ó I mean, I am fortunate, in that I was able to have health, and of course think about other things. Itís not that Iím cavalier about it.
Q: Why is it important for you to show your scar to the audience?
A: Well, first let me say that the play is as powerful without that moment ó and I know this because Iíve seen someone perform it in France, and I know that the performer in this little touring company in Canada doesnít have breast cancer ó so thereís an alternative to that, in which the lights just go dim as someone starts to unbutton their blouse, or they donít even, and you can omit the line, "Iím going to show you my scar." In the beginning, I felt several different ways about it, and didnít know what I would ultimately do. First of all, itís part of me. You know, I was standing one day in a bank, and I saw somebody without an arm, or with a prosthetic arm. There was also a woman in there who was blind. And there was me. With my clothes on. And no one knew what my scar was, or what missing part I had, or anything. And I just thought, how interesting that we all walk around with these [scars], whether theyíre emotional or physical. So it evolved. I do it. Iíve always felt that if it didnít feel right, I wouldnít do it. I also donít surprise people with it; I donít think thatís right. Itís not about that. Iím not trying to shock anybody.
Q: In the course of performing this play, what are some of the most memorable interactions youíve had with the audience, or responses from the audience?
A: You know, Iíve always wished that I had kept a complete journal and a tape-recorded session, because I canít tell you what people have given me, just by speaking, just by telling their stories, just by their relief, their release, their laughter. One favorite thing of mine was actually a young man who was in the audience in Texas, and afterwards he came up to me and said, "You rocked." I just loved that! And there have been men ó and I think Iím very, very touched by them ó who have either the experience with their wives, or a mother, or a friend. One woman said, "My husband still loves me; when will I feel good again? When will I feel that I look good again, or I look beautiful again? He thinks I am, but I look in the mirror and I see a little girl." We each put ourselves in the otherís hands, for a brief period of time, and it yields something that I canít even describe, but it makes it all worth it for me.
Q: Eve Ensler got everybody talking about the vagina, with The Vagina Monologues; do you feel itís equally important that people should be talking about breasts?
A: I know Eve ó Eve is a friend. I think [the breast] has been explored in ways that talking about vaginas has not. Also, my piece isnít based on interviews with people [the way The Vagina Monologues is]. I think, yeah, had I interviewed people [about breasts], or if someone else would interview people, you would find a wealth of material. But I havenít really thought about it that way. I think Eve should take me on the road with her.
Q: Do you have any particular thoughts on breast implants?
A: I think as long as theyíre proved to be safe, women should do whatever makes them comfortable. When this happened to me, it was very new, the idea of reconstruction, and my doctor didnít want me to do that. And then I didnít want to have another surgery. I really am for whatever will make people feel better, in terms of implants. Although, the whole thing about enlarging breasts is nuts!
Q: Talk to me about your right breast.
A: Well. Iím glad I have it! Yeah, Iím quite happy to have it.
Q: Does your relationship to one breast change when you lose the other one to breast cancer?
A: Well, there are a couple of levels to answer this question on. First, I think you still have sensitivity erotically actually in both areas. See, what happens, too, is thereís the shock to the system: you have cancer. Jesus. And the main thing is: treat that, I want to be well, I want to live. Now, people who have had one breast removed ó I noticed Linda Ellerbee had a double mastectomy, and she is on the air, and she doesnít wear any prosthesis. She usually wears little black shirts, and itís great. So part of the thing is, when you have one breast, itís this constant thing, the imbalance. Do I go out and not care if people look at me? Or do I go out and wear the phony breast, the prosthesis? Just so itís not an issue. These things I think women do grapple with. I was at a party once, and Isaac Mizrahi was there, the designer, and heís a funny guy, and I started talking to him, and I said, "You guys should really design a line for women whoíve had a mastectomy." And he looked at me, and I said, "So that they didnít have to wear anything, so that it was sort of asymmetrical. Well, Iím not the designer," I said, "but maybe you could come up with something so that it would be elegant or sexy or funky. There are so many, many, many women who have had this now."
Q: How did he respond?
A: He thought it was very interesting. He did. I donít know that he came up with a line! But itís really something to think about, because of the numbers of women.
Susan Miller will perform My Left Breast at the Copley Theatre, in Boston, on April 11, at 7:30 p.m. Call (617) 332-1646. Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]phx.com