Art has a way of sparking conversations and ideas.
It can also help a person heal and grow.
That is what Emma Jarrett of Quesnel has found in the last year and a half. With the help of dramaturge Danette Boucher of Wells, Jarrett has written a one-woman play about her journey through breast cancer diagnosis and treatment through the Sunset Theatre’s Exploration Series. Jarrett will premiere Breastless Friday, Oct. 11 and Saturday, Oct. 12 at the Sunset Theatre in Wells.
In April 2018, Jarrett connected with Boucher, and they began trying to put Jarrett’s thoughts and feelings to page.
“At the time, it was freshly finished, and if I looked behind me, it was this black hole and I had no sense of what on earth had just happened, really,” Jarrett says, sitting by the fireplace in her studio near Dragon Lake. “I had written a few poems as I was going through things. She kept asking me questions, and she kept saying ‘I’m asking you the types of questions that everybody wants to know but never dares to ask and don’t want to ask someone going through it’ — so what was chemo like, how was it on your relationship and family and how did you go through it, how did you feel when you were diagnosed.”
Initially, Jarrett says she didn’t remember what was going through her mind when she was diagnosed, but Boucher encouraged her to just write it down for herself.
Jarrett stayed in Wells in a situation similar to an artist-in-residence program, and wrote down her answers to Boucher’s questions.
“You’re submerged in this beautiful, creative process, and I have to say that theatre has this very feminine, womb-like feel to it — it just feels like you can incubate your ideas and things can evolve,” said Jarrett. “It’s just so beautiful, such a creative space.”
After six days, Boucher had printed out everything Jarrett had written in response to her questions and spread out all these pieces of papers. She suggested they do a reading for a few invited professionals and friends and see if it works and hear what people have to say.
“That was the most remarkable experience where people were moved to tears and joy and felt it very touching and asked that it be shared further,” said Jarrett.
The play has evolved from there, as Jarrett has had a few more opportunities like that to spend time in Wells with Boucher and a few more readings.
“A big piece of what it’s done is it slowly opened me to what was going on with me emotionally and how I was responding to others — and some of it is very tender, some of it is very angry — and recognizing the hell that was, but also seeing the incredible growth that’s come from it,” said Jarrett. “And now through using this creative process, the healing that has come from being able to dive deep and voice what I felt wasn’t being heard at the time. I really do hope it sort of models to others how useful this creative process can be and what an incredible offering this thing that the Sunset Theatre can provide for people — a very expert, professional team who managed to help someone who’s had no acting training to evolve their story into something worthy of sharing on the stage.”
A week away from premiering the full-fledged play, Jarrett says she feels her play has become an entity in of itself that deserves voicing, but at the same time, she is still astonished “what began as a confusion of little anecdotes, little short snippets of that time” has become a well-crafted story.
“I’m thrilled and excited that this may help open up discussion around how we view breasts, how we view cancer, how we view cancer treatment and healing,” she said. “It’s a beautiful piece of art, but it’s also a bit of a manifesto for change. Because I was quite shocked at how often I heard, a big part of the journey isn’t just about cancer, it’s about having my breasts removed — hence the title — and I was shocked at the somewhat flippant attitude from the medical profession but also other women — ‘oh, I’d have mine off,’ or ‘oh, they’ve served their purpose; you don’t need them anymore,’ — where I was seeing it as preparing myself for amputation. Not a limb, but a very emotional process. It’s been a form of identifying myself as a woman — that’s part of the journey too, finding out what does feminine mean. If I’m not blonde and don’t have breasts, no hair and no breasts, what makes me still a woman?”
Boucher started as the dramaturge and is now the director of this production. She is an interpreter at Barkerville Historic Town and Park and the artistic director of Histrionics Theatre Co., and she has a Master of Arts in Applied Theatre. Boucher has written, produced and performed many stage productions and film projects, including The Fred Wells Show and Lady Overlander, and she is bringing to life a new production, The Douglas Project, through the Sunset Theatre’s Exploration Series this year.
“[She] has this remarkable skill of drawing out of me the subtext of what I’m saying and then crafting it into this linear form, but with so many themes running in tandem,” said Jarrett. “I couldn’t have done it without her.”
Maggie Lees is the stage manager for Breastless.
As they were working on the production, Boucher would tell Jarrett “this is more than just a Ted Talk,” and Jarrett thinks that’s probably because there is the artistic piece to it.
“I was told that actors get to express the things we in the audience can’t — that’s the role of an actor, to express what we may not be able to express as an audience member,” said Jarrett. “ I think it’s a beautiful way of bringing in artistic form some questions to ponder, some reflections on what we might take for granted or might never have cause to consider. It’s certainly been used artistically to reassure us too that it’s OK not to know … and that crying is not a sign of weakness, that strength doesn’t mean powering through, and that we all have our own ways of finding our way through it, on no particular timeline.”
Jarrett doesn’t call herself a cancer survivor because she’s never gotten a definitive end point.
“Every person who has had cancer will tell you it’s always with you,” she said. “You’ve changed. I think I’m a cancer alumni or I’m changed because of it. I’ve learned a lot because of it.
“It’s always in my head, and it’s not in any sort of gruesome, fearful way, but almost as this little spur — ‘let’s do that now, shall we?’. That’s part of why I’m doing this, I think. There’s nothing like wondering when the end is going to be to make you get up and dare to do things, push through the fear and dare to do the things your heart is leading to do. And that can be a really huge thing for creating positive change. I think there’s a positive message in the play. It really ends with an invitation to really listen to each other and I guess not just powering through it. I hope it helps others, I really do.”
The Exploration Series, which began its inaugural season in 2006, is a crucible for new works. It is intended to nurture and develop each artist and play at whatever stage of development they are in.
“We meet the playwright where they are — from emerging to senior artist,” explained Karen Jeffery, executive artistic director of the Sunset Theatre. “To this end, the Sunset Theatre has supported the development of dozens of plays through readings, workshops, retreats and development, which eventually leads to production and has nurtured the development of local and Indigenous voices with little to no previous theatre experience.”
Jeffery says the initial goal of the Exploration Series was to premiere each play at the Sunset Theatre, but the success of the program has yielded more plays that are ready to be put on their feet, as they say in the business, than they can handle.
“This is a great thing and tells us that we are fulfilling our mandate, so to this end, the Sunset Theatre is now looking for other avenues and producing partners to help share all the wonderful work that is being created right here in the Cariboo,” she said.
Some past successes of the Exploration Series are 17 by Morag Northey, The Drum is Calling You Home by Marcel Gagnon and Jake’s Gift by Julia Mackey, which had a small workshop in 2006 and from there has recently celebrated its 1,000th performance.
Some other plays the Sunset Theatre is currently working on are Her Blood Runs through My Braids by Kym Gouchie from Lheidli T’enneh First Nation in Prince George, Suddenly 50 by Nicolle Nattrass, and Fraser & Me by Danielea Castell of Quesnel.
“Breastless by Emma Jarrett is a shining example of what happens when you say yes to those voices inside you,” said Jeffery.
Jarrett will share Breastless Oct. 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. at the Sunset Theatre at 2357 Pooley St. in Wells. Tickets are $15. To reserve tickets, call 250-994-3400.
To learn more about Jarrett’s Breastless play and her experiences, visit facebook.com/BreastlessPlay.