"I think cancer touches everybody in some way shape or form," said Chicago comedienne Judy Fabjance. She should know. A performer with GayCo and instructor at Second City, Fabjance was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, inspiring her to create a solo show, "Are You There Judy? It's Me, Cancer." While her cancer was in remission for three years, it recently returned, spreading to her bones and brain. This has slowed Fabjance down slightlybut given her and her partner, Kelly Beeman, more material.
Fabjance said her sketch comedy background was "the only outlet I knew" for dealing with the diagnosis. "At first it was just for me to get it out, I had so much to say. Even when I was in remission, I had somebody say, "oh, you're still thinking about the cancer?" And I said, "of course I am, I had a mastectomy, I had my lymph nodes removed, I had my ovaries removed." Of course you're still thinking about it. When I get dressed every day, it's a reminder."
The response to her solo show, "Are You There Judy? It's Me, Cancer" was amazing, said Fabjance. "I was selling out houses. There were doctors there, nurses there, survivors, caregivers, and people would come up to be after the show and be sobbing, thanking me for sharing my story, telling me about their story, and laughing too, saying, 'I really like the part about this, I can relate to it, and yeah, doctors do say this all the time.' It then became about other people. I'm doing this for those who are not around to do this, who might not have the energy to do this."
Fabjance said occasionally prospective audiences don't think a show about cancer could be funny. "I've had friends say, '"I almost didn't come to the show because I thought it'd be such a downer,'" she said. "But my thing is that I promise that it's educating, that it's entertaining, it's enlightening, you'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll feel, you'll think."
According to Fabjance, Tales of A Stage Four Cancer finds her and Beeman injecting absurdity into cancer by dressing up as ovaries and cancer tumors, and trying to ignite that loving spark with a little help from the Golden Girls,
Fabjance cannot credit Beeman, also her partner of six years, enough. "She's been around since the first diagnosis, and she is just a great caregiver," she said. "Everything from when I had surgery to sponge baths to making meals to my seven and a half year old daughtershe just really has taken the reins and been there for me."
The show thrives with Beeman's participation, Fabjance said. "I love having a partner on stage, especially since my background is sketch comedy. I was always so nervous during, 'Are You There Judy? It's Me, Cancer', because you had nobody to fall back on. If you forgot your line, you were like 'oops, that's it.' This time, we ad-lib together and that's really fun."
She complimented Beeman's writing and performance skills. "In this show I just think she shines because she's being truthful and writing about her own experiences. That's one of the strengths in our relationship, writing and performing. We really compliment each other." Fabjance claimed to be "more realistic and more on the serious side", while Beeman makes the pairs costumes, and appears onstage as a reverend trying to get people's taste buds back. ( Fabjance lost hers because of chemo. )
Wanting to tell a universal story, Fabjance said she was "a little paranoid" at first about her material outing herself. "Not that I hit it over the head, but that's who I am. Of course I'm going to do a tango with a female blow-up doll, because that's my girlfriend at the time. My story is not about me and a man."
I think that feeling went away quickly for me," Fabjance continued, "because it's just my story, it's just part of who I am. I wanted to make sure that they still got the message about my cancer journey, and that's just one piece in my journey."
Despite the ongoing health concernsFabjance was using a walker until recentlyshe wants "Tales of a Stage Four Cancer" to have another Chicago run or even a national tour. Perhaps there will even be a third cancer showFabjance said she and Beeman certainly have enough material.
"I thought 18 years ago when we started Gayco, that's what I want to do, gay and lesbian sketch comedy." Fabjance said. "But then when I got cancer, and started going through my first show, I thought 'nope, this is what I was put on this earth to do. This is my passion.'"
Fabjance and Beeman will star in Tales of a Stage Four Cancer on Thursday, Jan. 15, at 8 p.m. during the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, held at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased at the box office or at www.chicagosketchfest.com .