Professional Nonprofit Theater on Martha's Vineyard
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Turning Life’s Curveballs Into Art

by Louisa Hufstader, Vineyard Gazette

When journalist, stand-up comic and actress Jenny Allen performs at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse this weekend, she’s bringing her acclaimed one-woman show full circle to its original stage.

I Got Sick Then I Got Better, Ms. Allen’s engaging memoir of her struggle with two types of life-threatening cancer, found its first audience at the playhouse in the summer of 2007.

“I kind of had to dare myself,” Ms. Allen recalled of that initial Monday night reading. “I wasn’t sure how this would fly.”

What she could never have imagined was that her 50-minute reading would intrigue the director and playwright James Lapine, a casual acquaintance who happened to be in the Vineyard Haven audience that night.

“I didn’t know he was coming to the show,” Ms. Allen said. “He emailed me right afterwards and said, ‘I’d like to work with you on this, if you’re interested.’”

“Wasn’t that an amazing thing to do?” she added. “Every time I tell this to anybody, it brings a tear to my eye. Just out of nowhere, this act of incredible generosity.”

The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning Mr. Lapine worked closely with Ms. Allen to craft her cancer notes into a compelling 75-minute performance.

“He was my editor — really my collaborator,” she said. “He was so gentle and savvy.”

Working chiefly with the texts, Mr. Lapine brought in associate director Darren Katz as Ms. Allen’s performance coach. “It was like a master class in acting,” Ms. Allen said. “I think my assumption was, if I remembered my lines and I remembered to be charming, that would be a good evening.”

But Mr. Lapine and Mr. Katz wanted much more. “We took apart the show line by line,” Ms. Allen said. “We broke it down so that every line had to be felt. Every line had to be justified, as if someone else had written it.”

One result was that a lot of Ms. Allen’s material — collected with a journalist’s painstaking precision — simply had to go. “I say to my friends, if he hadn’t been watching over it and working with me, the show would be seven hours long and I’d be doing it in my living room alone.”

By 2009, I Got Sick Then I Got Better was playing in New York city, with held-over runs and a glowing review from New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley. “It’s nice to have the Times in your corner,” Ms. Allen said.

Since then, she’s taken the show to other North American stages, and is preparing for a performance in Olympia, Wash. next month.

“I love it when anybody asks me to do it, but I have a particular allegiance and fondness for the playhouse,” said Ms. Allen, who is also the theatre’s literary manager.

Although it is centered on her experiences with endometrial cancer and ovarian cancer, I Got Sick Then I Got Better is designed for a wide audience, Ms. Allen said.

“Anybody who’s had an illness or knows anybody who’s had an illness seems to identify with it — the feelings of isolation, the ridiculous things that happen, the funny things that happen. It’s not meant to be a show just for people who’ve had cancer or have cancer.”

Ms. Allen often feels a powerful connection with her audiences. “Even though I’m doing all the talking, to me it feels like a conversation because they’re doing a lot of nodding,” she said.

Ms. Allen also likes to mingle after the performance.

“I always hang around a little after the show, because people often need to talk,” she said. “When we have an understanding and we know each other, it finishes off the evening.”

I Got Sick Then I Got Better will be performed at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse on Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 19, both shows beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $35. Visit mvplayhouse.org.

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