Trish Ayers Interview

WG: Trish, can you talk a little bit about how you came to write the play LUMPs. What were you trying to achieve?

TA: When I wasn't even ten years old, my Mom was diagnosed with cancer during a time when cancer was kept hush hush because of lack of knowledge and many unfounded fears associated with it. My mother wasn't given much of a chance to live. She prayed for the chance to live until I, the youngest of her children graduated from high school. She is alive today after facing three episodes with cancer. The second time she faced cancer in another organ and after surgery and chemo the doctor suggested it was time she check out Hospice. She did, she signed up to become a volunteer. That was when she was sixty years old. She is still alive and is in her seventies.

Several years ago I heard what I thought was a veiled attempt by the health insurance companies to discourage mammograms. This bothered me because I realized that many of the people who died from breast cancer were young women and the exact ones discouraged from having mammograms. After talking with several doctors I understood that most young women didn't need to have mammograms unless they showed symptoms or a significant family history. But, that every woman needed to do self-exams as a means to monitor any changes in their breasts.

I was still concerned that the news might discourage women from taking breast self care seriously. I wanted to write letters. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops that it is often the young women who die from breast cancer.

As I pondered this I had my yearly mammogram and felt scared and awkward. I so would have loved to have been surrounded by women who I loved. I mentioned it to the person doing the mammogram how it would be nice to have mammogram tea parties with women wearing fancy hats while sitting there in their gowns! We had a good laugh.

I went home wanting to write letters again, to start such programs and then I realized I wanted it to happen in more than one location. At that exact moment something welled up inside me, "write a play!" I laughed. With a play I could create any program I wanted and it could spread. I think there is great power when audience members witness a transformation or a change in a way of thinking while attending a theatrical production. I could show a new way of doing things!

Then a beat kept going through my head as I wondered how in the world I was going to deal with a play about breasts and not face uncomfortable laughter that would deflect from the stories my characters had to tell. I giggled! Start the play with the word breast! Let the audience giggle when it didn't matter. The beat overcame me and the words started popping out to the beat.

For months I was consumed with my characters. I kept a notebook and anytime I learned something else about a character I wrote it down. I literally fell in love with each of my ladies who inhabited LUMPs. I talked about my ladies as if they were friends.

Finally, I finished the first draft. Then I got a phone call from my sister, my Mom had cancer again; this time breast cancer. For a second I thought, "oh my gosh, what have I done?" Then I stopped the negative feelings and started packing.

While being with my Mom and Dad through another surgery and recovery I felt blessed to witness the love my Dad showed my Mom by his actions. It was then I realized LUMPs was missing something; the men who loved the women.

As soon as I returned home I started the first re-write and began to get to know my four male characters. I fell in love with them too. It was almost like magic how the men blended into the play. It was as if the play was waiting for them!

When I began writing this play I wanted young women, middle aged women, and older women to pay attention to breast self care. I also wanted going to get mammograms to be less sterile, more fun. Finally, I hoped there would be a time when this play would no longer be needed.

WG: I'm interested in the strategy that you used to try to diffuse the possible distraction of the audience from your real story by simply pelting them with the word "breast" right up front and letting those who were uncomfortable with it get it out of their systems at the beginning. When you went to see the first production of the play, did it seem to you that that strategy worked? Broadening the question somewhat I also wanted to ask what your reaction was when you first viewed the play. How did the actual production compare to the way that you had conceived it in your mind? Did you feel that you learned anything by watching it actually being produced?

TA: Yes, the strategy did work. Pelting the audience with the word breast at the beginning of LUMPs led to a bit of uncomfortable laughter, but as the play progressed, there were no snickers when the word breast was spoken.

When I saw the first production of LUMPs I was astounded at how much more I learned about my characters. The first production was a staged reading directed by my husband (Shan Ayers) and I was blessed that he was well acquainted with the script and my characters. He understood my desire to have the actors/actresses create a rhythm with magazines, the tossing of the baseball and the cadence of the dialogue. One of the lines that the nurse has at the beginning says that this is a dance of survival. Having the rhythmic dialogue, and the rhythm of the page turning and ball throwing, adds to the music of the play. The director's thorough understanding of the script and the underlying rhythm was very close to how I envisioned it as I wrote it. The main difference I noticed was how the characters spoke their lines, the inflections and the sound of the actor or actresses actual voice. Having been around theatre for over twenty years I understood that each actor/ actress would absorb the character and present it in their own unique way.

I was shocked at how I continued to fall in love with the characters. I wanted to walk on stage and hug them when they struggled. I wanted to celebrate their victories; I wanted to do the yearly mammogram check-in with my characters.

As I watched LUMPs for the first time I wasn't prepared for the sniffles in the audience. I was humbled. There were members of the audience who had faced cancer. One audience member told me he would like to watch the play again but it would be too painful. Another audience member asked me if I had faced cancer, because I had captured it so realistically.

After watching the first production of LUMPs, I re-visited the script. I cleaned up dialogue that didn't sound as natural as I desired and once again I listened to my characters. What surprised me was that some characters formed on stage friendships that I hadn't anticipated and some characters wanted to say more. In fact, after the second production, one actress approached me saying she felt her character had more to say. She wasn't begging for lines but rather an opportunity for her character (Allison) to share with the audience more about herself. The actress was absolutely right. I added one line that showed the character of Allison being vulnerable when she had to go back for more medical testing. It worked.

WG: How have men reacted to the production? Were there any surprises there? Did any of the men have suggestions about how the attitudes men the play were portrayed?

TA: Many men have had a visceral reaction to LUMPs. It was a male audience member who told me he would like to watch it again but couldn't face it, the play was too realistic. He felt like he was reliving the time he spent with his sister when she was facing the realities of breast cancer, it was like I had read his mind, his thoughts.

The biggest surprise has been the response of the men who acted in LUMPs. One young man took the story to heart and pushed his mother to get her mammogram. He actually insisted that she make an appointment before the end of the run of the production. Another actor made the commitment to help his wife do her monthly exam, not for sexual pleasure but as a loving gesture. Men who have watched LUMPs have told me that they could see some of themselves in all of the male characters. Some men have asked me how in the world I knew men so well. Mary Owens who has directed the play a number of times believes that I actually gave the men the best lines.

Trish, one of the accomplishments of Disability Studies over the last decade is to establish that physical disability is not merely a physical impairment which it is incumbent upon the person with the disability to overcome, but a social construct. Breast cancer provides an interesting focal point in the discussion of the attempt to define disability. In her Cancer Journals, the poet Audre Lorde famously rejected the use of a prosthesis after having had a mastectomy, emphasizing the role society plays in the actually rendering a mastectomy disabling to women. How do you think that LUMPs grapples with this issue? Are there any particular characters in the play in that you see as trying to reconcile this dilemma?

The character of Nora addresses mixed feeling about her prosthesis when she pulled them out and comments, "Look at this. My own portable breast. Doesn't it look natural? That's what all the ads say! . . . "

Nora still wore the prosthesis but I had a sense that she might rather trash it and be who she has become since breast cancer. An interesting dynamic that emerges in LUMPs is women body issues. There is one character, Erika who wishes she didn't have breasts, another character Allison who proudly flaunts her breast implants and then of course Nora who almost felt a disdain for her prosthesis. It's clear that the comment that I have actually heard spoken, "it's only a breast" is absolutely wrong. A breast is a part of a woman's body and having one surgically removed has an impact on a woman. I feel society should embrace the choices women make after a mastectomy.

I know many women who have experienced breast cancer, some have had reconstructive surgery, others deal with the often annoying prosthesis and some like Audre Lorde have decided to live with the change in their body as it is, much like some women are embracing the bald head associated with the effects of chemotherapy.

I hope we are moving toward the day when society doesn't push individuals to conform to what society is most comfortable with. I remember when I was making difficult decisions with regards to my health. There seemed to be an inordinate amount of concern about returning my voice rather than helping so I could once again breathe easily. My doctor seemed surprised that I made the choice of a very visible tracheotomy versus something that was still experimental that wouldn't be so visible. I didn't care. I just wanted to breathe. I pride myself on being so comfortable with my tracheotomy of over ten years that often when I meet people they don't even notice the hole in my neck with a large plastic piece protruding from it. It all has to do with eventually becoming comfortable with the changes. Living with a tracheotomy is not something I need to overcome but rather an alteration in my body that makes it so I can live my biggest life.

Trish, I would like to thank you for interviewing with Wordgathering. In closing, is there anything that you would like to add, such as your current projects you are involved in or future work that you are planning on, or anything else you think we might have missed?

TA: I tend to work on numbers of things at a time. Right now I'm working on writing a grant proposal to lead a ten-month seminar for Kentucky Women Writers on the genre of playwriting. We'll meet once a month and it will culminate in each of the seven emerging playwrights having written one new ten-minute and one-act play. They'll have a reading at the community event called Second Friday which is co-sponsored by WaysMeet Healing Arts Center and the Berea Arts Council. In 2006 I received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for women to lead a similar seminar.

In April I'll lead a workshop on writing a ten-minute play as a part of the Writers Collective 2008 Workshop which is co-sponsored by the Berea Arts Council. Also, I'm a member of a three person group, The Silver Creek Writers and the three of us, Linda Caldwell, Mary Owens and I will be leading seminars on writing ten-minute plays for an advanced creative writing class at Berea College and at the 2008 Appalachian Writers Association (AWA) conference. Just this week I learned that a reading of my ten-minute play, Judging Quilts will be part of the opening of this year's AWA conference.

I expect to have my most recent one-act play, Weighty Issues completed by this summer. Issues related to weight, rape, and abuses are all intertwined in this play. I hope it will be produced on college campuses.

Then I'll be taking some time away from writing to be with my oldest daughter and son-in-law as they bring our first grandchild into this world. After meeting this new child I may very well find myself returning to writing plays for the puppet company, The Mountain Spirit Troupe that my husband ( Shan Ayers) and I formed and serve as co-artistic directors.

In between all of this I will continue to work on my poetry manuscript and family essays. It will be important that I pace myself and rest as much as possible, a part of the reality of my disability. I have a full and exciting year ahead and staying healthy is important!

The only other thing I thought of is to share with you some information on the realities of the disabilities I live with. I live with asthma, reactive airway disease, an auto-immune response angio-edema which flares when I'm exposed to tobacco smoke, perfume, cologne, chemicals and certain foods. When I go into an angio-edema episode it's like I have instant pneumonia and congestive heart failure. I also have damage to my laryngeal nerve (probably when happened during a neck fusion) which paralyzed my vocal chord mid-line resulting in a major breathing obstruction. That's why I have a tracheotomy, a hole in my neck which allows more air to enter my lungs. In addition to these issues I deal with seizures. Because of the seizures I haven't driven for around ten years. I think this is the hardest reality. Prior to the changes in my body I was quite independent and didn't think anything about driving cross country. I'm always looking for the ultimate creative solution which will allow me the freedom I once had, until then I have been blessed with an understanding family and friends who offer me rides to activities.

Thank you for taking the time to learn about my playwriting work. It's been enjoyable being interviewed.