Nerds of Mizzou
Heather Carver, an MU professor of playwriting and performance studies, is an unbashed theater nerd. A natural performer, she has taken her experiences with breast cancer to the stage.
Nothing about cancer is funny, and lifelong clown Heather Carver knows that. Yet even while fighting breast cancer, she has the chops for comedy.
Just hearing her laugh is fun. She makes a boisterous sound that rattles through her lungs to the farthest seat in a theater or classroom. Unexpectedly, though, four years ago laughing at life became a challenge.
In October 2005, at age 37, Carver learned she had metastatic breast cancer and needed surgery to remove a nearly 3-inch tumor. She endured a double mastectomy, five months of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation and failed breast reconstruction. More radiation followed when doctors discovered cancer on her sternum.
“It was never dull,” says Carver, associate professor and chair of graduate studies in the Department of Theatre. As sick as she was with stage-four cancer, she still saw humor around her.
While lying on the radiation table at Ellis Fischel Cancer Center, she thought: “I should do a play on Marie Curié.”
Carver started writing as an outlet to deal with the grief she felt and decided to tell her own story of living with cancer. “Treat me right, or you’ll be in my show,” she would tease her many doctors and health-care providers.
Thinking about her caregivers and listening to the stories of other cancer patients became part of her healing process and the foundation of two shows, Booby Prize, in 2006, and Booby Trap, in October 2009, coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Developing plays is a natural process for Carver, whose adaptation of Lynn Miller’s novel The Fool’s Journey was a national finalist for the David Mark Cohen Playwriting Award. Carver’s academic focus is performance studies and performance writing, and she has a special interest in performance that educates.
Carver performs her new show Booby Trap, a sequel to her much-lauded Booby Prize, at the women's fitness center Curves. As the seating suggests, Carver is known for improvizing and tailoring each performance for her audience.
Carver continued to teach throughout her cancer treatment because it made her feel normal. She and her family gratefully looked forward to the homemade meals delivered by theater department faculty, staff and students.
When Carver’s hair started falling out just before Christmas 2005, she invited friends and family for a ceremonial head shaving. For her doctoral degree, Carver had written a dissertation on Joan of Arc, and she remembered the traumatic moment when the girl’s head was shaved in preparation for death. It seemed like a defining gesture.
So that December day in Carver’s bathroom, a friend took clippers in hand and sheared off a strip of brown hair down the center of Carver’s head, unwittingly leaving curly tufts on each side of her face.
“It was hilarious. I looked like Bozo the clown,” Carver says. Her reaction was to ask someone to retrieve her clown nose, and, presto, a one-woman comedy about cancer began its course.
Carver opens her performances of Booby Prize in full clown costume. “I’m this loud, irreverent clown anyway. It’s not that much of an act,” she says.
The clown painstakingly drags a heavy brown bag across the floor. After opening the mysterious bag, she pulls out a sign that says: Booby Prize. “I win,” Carver explains. “I’m the one of every seven women with breast cancer.”
English Professor Elaine Lawless, Carver's close friend, collaborates with her on using performance to educate people about serious issues. They co-founded MU’s Troubling Violence Performance Project — a student troupe that performs true stories about violence toward women — and co-wrote a book, Troubling Violence: A Performance Project, published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2009.
“People were stunned when Carver wrote and performed Booby Prize,” Lawless says. “As a nerd who enjoys not being like anyone else and not caring, Heather is her own person.”
Indeed. In Booby Trap, Carver surprises the audience by throwing at them a woman who, in her own words, will say and do anything. She reaches under her pink T-shirt to remove prosthetic breast forms, then pulls off the bra through her shirtsleeves. The parlor trick reveals her post-surgical shape and shows the audience her natural self.
Being bald can be cool
Though she emanates a larger-than-life comedic persona — often in a red nose and floppy shoes — in her work Carver takes on serious subjects such as cancer, domestic violence and the Holocaust.
Wigs are itchy. Carver hated the feel and refused to wear them. She preferred being bald.
Friends started giving her unusual hats as gifts, some with earflaps or blonde Swedish braids attached. She’d wear the headgear while she was cold, then yank it off as she warmed up, even in the middle of a lecture. The students tried hard not to notice her baldness, but Carver, being Carver, had her portrait taken when her head was smooth as a bowling ball.
In both “Booby” plays, she recounts her visit to the White House while hairless. Her husband, Bill Horner, MU assistant teaching professor of political science, was invited there to meet with former classmate Karl Rove and accepted Rove’s invitation for the Mizzou couple to watch the president leave by helicopter.
The wait for Bush became lengthy, and Carver, weak from chemotherapy, needed to rest. She walked painfully to a bench, wondering whether the Secret Service would restrict her from the area, then thought, “Who’s going to stop a bald lady?” As she sat there exhausted and with her bald head glistening in the sun, President Bush walked by.
“Are you doing OK?” he asked.
Carver was eager to share her White House story with friends and family, because, as she emphasizes, “The president of the United States asked how I was doing today!” Her mom, not a Bush fan, wasn’t impressed, and Carver finds irony in the fact that “she tells everyone I have diarrhea when I have chemo, but she doesn’t tell anyone we’re going to the White House.”
In performance, Carver’s two cancer comedies conclude rather abruptly. The technique works. “I don’t have an ending,” she says. “The fact that I’m here is the ending.”
As Carver’s life evolves, so do her plays. She pulls in new stories and ad libs to fit the audiences.
During a recent performance of Booby Trap, Carver stepped into the audience to hug a slight woman whom she identified as another breast cancer survivor. “Jody is my bosom buddy,” Carver says, then looks down at her friend’s chest and adds, “my non-bosom buddy.”And they laugh.