It is unthinkable to lose three friends to cancer within the span of two short years and also be confronted with your own diagnosis of cancer. For York University English Professor Priscila Uppal that is exactly what happened.
To cope, she put pen to paper and wrote about creativity in the face of grief, fear and loss. The result is a new play titled, What Linda Said, and it will debut August 3 to 13 as part of the Toronto’s acclaimed Summerworks Theatre Festival.
Through the lens of her real-life experience with cancer and losing close friends to cancer, What Linda Said presents a magical and uplifting theatrical dialogue between two old friends. Based on her friendship with Linda Griffiths, the late celebrated Canadian actress, Uppal offers up a bitingly funny, poetic and personal look at coping with cancer.
Diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that tends to strike young and healthy adults, at the same time that Griffiths was nearing the end of her life and battle with breast cancer, Uppal was unable to visit Griffiths during her final days because of her own cancer treatment.
As part of her own healing process, Uppal worked with a meditation and creative visualization therapist to help her through chemotherapy. During one of the creative visualizations, she was instructed to enter an empty theatre. Into this imaginary space, Uppal put a couch, lamp and rug on the stage. The therapist noted that if there was a couch, rug and lamp, it appeared that someone was coming to visit. “Who is it?” she asked Uppal.
“All of a sudden, there was Linda, wrapped in a hot pink pashmina shawl and walking towards me,” said Uppal. “She said, ‘I live here now’ and I said ‘I miss you” and the conversation began.
“Later on that night, while I was in the hospital, I opened up my notebook and I wrote ‘What Linda Said’ at the top of the page and then I started to transcribe the conversation as I remembered it, which is the first scene of the play and then after that, I continued to write down the conversation in my notebook for the next several months,” said Uppal.
“I never actually did visualization again; the therapist would come in and say, ‘It seems to me like you and Linda are having a conversation so we will let that continue.’ The play is a series of conversations that I have with Linda that have to do with some of the absurdities, as well as the fears and anxieties, of going through cancer treatment. What it means to be an artist. What it means to be a woman,” said Uppal.
In addition to the loss of Griffiths, Uppal had also experienced the untimely death of her close friend, poet Rishma Dunlop, who was also a professor of creative writing at York University, and then the unthinkable happened again. “It was about halfway through writing the play when a dramaturge I always worked with, Iris Turcott, died of cancer,” said Uppal, “so the play is actually dedicated to my three graces, Linda, Rishma and Iris.
“Iris was legendary in Canadian Theatre. Before she died, I sent her the draft of What Linda Said because I knew she would tell me if it was therapy or a play. I thought it was a play. She came back to me right away and said that she loved the play, thought it was brilliant and said that it had to be brought to the stage,” said Uppal. “We did a few workshops at the Factory Theatre before she died and now the play will be part of Summerworks.”
The play is 75 minutes long and will run August 3 to 13 at the Factory Theatre Studio, 125 Bathurst Street in Toronto. Show times and tickets are available online. Tickets are also available at the Summerworks Box Office at the Factory Theatre. The play is a fund what you can endeavour.
More about Priscila Uppal
In addition to being a professor, Uppal is a poet, prose writer and playwright. She has earned international acclaim for her poetry collections Sabotage and Ontological Necessities (which was a Griffin Poetry Prize finalist); her novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern; and the memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Hilary Weston Prize, Governor General’s Award finalist); the short story collection Cover Before Striking; and the drama 6 Essential Questions.
Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Korean and Latvian. She was Canadian Athletes Now poet-in- residence during the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games. Priscila produces theatre under Dr. Up Productions. Time Out London dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.”