By Dara Padwo-Audick
Editor’s note: Tickets are now on sale for the 2023 Capital Fringe Festival (July 12 to 23), and DC Theater Arts has offered space to ten Fringe producers to describe their shows in their own words. Check back for more 2023 Capital Fringe previews!
What’s it like to fight skin cancer as a resilient human warrior? After two melanoma and six basal cell surgeries, I wanted others to know. I’m not alone in my battle with skin cancer; I have much to say about my experience. So, I wrote a full-length play, Onion Skin. The play is a dark, dramatic comedy on purpose. Cancer is not fun but will transform you if it doesn’t kill you.
Stylized with lighting, blocking, props, and a video element, Onion Skin explores the journeys of four people facing different stages of skin cancer. The play peels back the psychological layers of Melanie, Diana, Cherry, and Tim as they confront their mortality, humanity, and the medical institutions that both support and hinder them.
It was essential to incorporate Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief — anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — in the play. I also wanted to depict the deep inner work that happens with a cancer diagnosis when one chooses to do the work that involves introspection and reaching out for support. Vulnerability and strength need to find a balance if you’re going to get through treatment with dignity. Humbly leaning on others is a skill cancer patients must embrace. Self-advocacy is mandatory for survival.
Three female doctors, played by the same actor in different costumes, represent both satirical and supportive aspects of the medical community. My experience with the medical community during skin cancer surgeries and reconstructions has been as multilayered as an onion, hence the title.
In the play, my first dermatologist, Dr. Oblivia, missed melanoma on my arm. I could have died. Seriously.
I took matters into my own hands and researched everything I could find about melanoma, basal cell, Mohs, and plastic surgeries. I found the best doctors in the DC Metro area and made sure they accepted me into their practices. I was lucky. I have an incredible care team now.
Part of the message in Onion Skin is that patients must discern between doctors who care and those who don’t. There are remarkable doctors out there. You need to find them.
The three doctors in the play also are confronted with surprising dilemmas. I wanted audiences to understand that doctors are people too. While we see them as experts, they have a human side. A good and responsible doctor becomes your partner in treatment and health.
Onion Skin is not my first play. I started writing short stories when I was six. I wrote short plays and cast the neighborhood kids in them. We passed out tickets and performed on townhouse patios. We even provided homemade chocolate chip cookies.
I embraced the theater as a performer and director throughout my high school and college years. However, as much as I loved the stage, I turned to advertising and nonfiction television in my later twenties to earn a living and support myself and my young son.
I returned to my fiction roots while completing an MFA in Playwriting and Screenwriting at Antioch University in Santa Barbara, California. My insightful mentor, playwright and screenwriter Colette Freedman, pushed me to share my journey in Onion Skin. I can’t thank her enough for doing so.
Onion Skin took a year to write and rewrite. I was thrilled when the 2023 Capital Fringe Festival accepted the play. I set my mind on raising almost $20,000 to bring the production to life and fairly pay my cast and crew. I did it with the help of many generous donors and a supportive fiscal sponsor, From the Heart Productions.
Since then, the play has taken on a life of its own. I wanted to raise skin cancer awareness and was delighted when MDSolarSciences offered to partner with our production and offer free sunscreen samples to Onion Skin attendees.
A friend introduced me to my co-director, Helen Hayes award-winning composer and director Matt Conner. Collaborating with him and my exceptional cast and crew is an honor.
I hope audiences will see themselves in Melanie, Cherry, Diana, and Tim, whether they have faced cancer directly or not.
Our skin is our largest organ. We need to protect it. We never know how much time we have on this earth. I believe Onion Skin is a reminder to seize every moment.
Running Time: 75 minutes.
Dara Padwo-Audick is a writer, producer, and director for film, television, and stage. She is also an adjunct professor in the Film & Media Arts Division at American University.
The complete 2023 Capital Fringe Festival guidebook is online here.
SEE ALSO: 2023 Capital Fringe Festival to pop up in Georgetown and Dupont (news story, April 28, 2023)