PHILADELPHIA and NEW YORK CITY: The news was buried in the middle of a press release noting a change to the Public Theater of New York’s season upcoming programming: The March run of Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s new musical, The Total Bent, it was announced in October, would be replaced by Tracey Scott Wilson’s play Buzzer, “to allow time for the [The Total Bent’s] director, Joanna Settle, to recover from breast cancer.”
The news capped a crazy-busy year for Settle, a freelance director who, after years based in Brooklyn, pulled up stakes and moved with her nine-year-old son Logan to Philadelphia to head the University of the Arts’s Ira Brind School of Theatre Arts. The job started in January, in fact, but she chose not to move to full-time to Philly until after her son’s school year finished—and after she finished directing another Stew/Rodewald musical, Family Album, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
“We had a mommy-tracker on my calendar titled ‘7 Months of Madness,’ ” Settle recalled in a recent interview from Philadelphia, where she just directed Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn at the Wilma Theater. Those mad months involved a lot of frequent-flyer miles between Philadelphia, New York and Oregon, but they ostensibly ended on July 11 with Settle and son’s permanent move to their new home in Philly.
Settle had barely settled in, though, when, on a routine visit to her gynecologist, she mentioned a small lump she’d found in her breast. It was so small, in fact, that an initial mammogram didn’t see anything; but when the technician “redirected” the machine, the cancer was located. “It was super-early detection,” said Settle with some relief.
The prescribed course of treatment would involve six chemotherapy sessions and a single mastectomy; Settle chose chemo first, “so I could do the show at the Wilma.” That meant, though, that her surgery would be scheduled for next February, roughly the same week as rehearsals for The Total Bent were to begin. Amazingly, the Public simply rescheduled the show for the following season, and “never even for a second suggested hiring another director. That was an incredibly moving thing for me.”
She’s found support wherever she’s turned, in fact: The Wilma beefed up the hours of her assistant director on Rapture; friends have come to stay with her to help out with household chores; and her university students, she said, were “so excited when I walked in without my hair.”
Her greatest rock of support, though, came from an unlikely source.
“When I got my cancer diagnosis, I was in my office about to have a meeting, and I looked over and there was a stack of Samuel Beckett books,” said Settle, who teaches a class in her department called “Perspectives on Beckett.” She remembers thinking, “Thank God my friend is going to be with me.”
It hasn’t been easy for her to accept help, she confessed. “I’m one of those over-achievers—when you come over, I’ve already made all the food. But I need a lot of help now.” Waxing philosophical, she added, “I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, and I’m not happy I have cancer. But I had never been sick in my life, really. And it didn’t escape me that there’s a kind of ease in my direction [of Rapture]—I was just allowing things to happen; I wasn’t worried. The primary thing I was doing was not directing a play—the primary thing I was doing was battling cancer, and while I was battling cancer, I was in rehearsal.”
Though she’s a native New Yorker, Settle said she hasn’t missed her longtime home. “Not for a second—isn’t that weird?” She’d been looking for a new place to live, she said, because the competitive pace and expense of New York theatre wasn’t serving her process. “I wanted to get somewhere where there’s a community of art-makers who, when we get to rehearsal, are not totally strung out. I felt like the way we all had to hustle in New York didn’t allow us to sit in a room and create the work.”
She found the right mix of vitality and stability in Philadelphia—and she even sees some of that energy reflected in academia, because it’s “a place where you can explore without having to sell tickets. Penicillin came out of the academy, by mistake. I wanna know: What’s in that dish?”
At the Brind School, she has commissioned four local companies, as well as playwright/performer Heather Raffo, to make new work they’ll develop with her students. Her only requirement: to bring her “the idea no one will fund but you really wanna do.” The companies include Headlong Dance Theatre, which created a Caryl Churchill-inspired dance/theatre piece called Some Love & Some Information, as well as the Berserker Residents, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret and 11th Hour Theatre Company.
One assignment for her theatre students seems to resonate with her own recent experiences.
“Today their assignment was to find two boxes,” she explained. “In one of the boxes, they write down what most excites and energizes them about the project they’re working on, and in the other box, they write down their biggest fear.”
It’s a clarifying exercise, not least because of the fate of the latter box’s contents. Said Settle, who could be describing the personal and professional ethos that has kept her going through this tumultuous year: “Take the fear and light it on fire.”