Actor comedian puts cancer center stage at Piccolo Spoleto Festival

May 01, 2018
David Nelson
This year marks Nelson's 10th time to perform at the Charleston-based arts festival, Piccolo Spoleto. Photo by Dawn Brazell

When actor and stand-up comedian David Lee Nelson takes center stage at Pure Theatre during the 2018 Piccolo Spoleto festival this month, it’s an odd subject he’ll brand with his sense of humor. It’s his own stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis. 

It’s no joking matter, which is exactly why Nelson, who gets his chemotherapy treatment at Hollings Cancer Center at the Medical University of South Carolina, made the show so funny.

“I like to find serious things and find the humor in them. Cancer is such a tense topic. It’s just asking for release. It’s just asking for comedy. Comedy also is about human beings facing things they are unequipped to handle. This is something we are unequipped to handle. As humans, the best we can do is laugh about it.”

Nelson, 39, has gotten a lot of practice during the past year.

Diagnosed with advanced colon cancer at 38, he began blogging to make sense of what is a life-altering, mind-boggling experience. Nelson got such positive responses about the blog, he decided to turn it into a solo performance for Piccolo Spoleto. The play, aptly named “Stages,” opens May 26 and runs through June 9.

The College of Charleston graduate spent a decade in New York City as a stand-up comedian and got his Master of Fine Arts from the Alabama Shakespeare Festival through a joint program with the University of Alabama. He moved to Atlanta in August 2016 with his girlfriend and was taking advantage of film and television opportunities when he began to have stomach pains. He tried to ignore them, attributing the pain to bad food.

In January, the pain couldn’t be ignored anymore. Finally, after a couple of trips to the emergency department, he was referred to a specialist who found the source of the pain. A CT scan revealed a tumor. When he had surgery to remove a 9-centimeter tumor that had burst through his intestines, he knew why he had been in such severe pain.

“A semi-hemi colectomy. That was the name of the surgery done by a gentlemen named Dr. Sharma,” he said of his surgeon at Emory University Hospital.

As he describes it in his solo show: “He cut me open; unpacked everything; laid it out on the table; removed the damaged part of my large intestine, part of my smaller intestine, and forty lymph nodes. He then reattached my colon, stuffed everything back inside, stapled me up, and I have never seen the man since.

“Whenever I get depressed about the state of the world, I think about the fact that people know how to cut other people open, remove damaged parts of our bodies, put us back together, without killing us. How amazing is that?”

Nelson, who ended up moving back to his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, halfway through his treatment, said he has learned how common this is for young people. “I’m part of a trend of people in their 20s and 30s getting colon cancer. It was weird. The day I went in for my surgery, CNN and the New York Times each had articles about people in their 30s getting colon cancer.”

The play isn’t about that, though. It’s about how cancer or other serious conditions alter how life is experienced, not only for the people who are sick but for everyone who loves them, he said.

When an oncologist at Emory broke the news to him, she was brilliant, he recalled. “She said, ‘Anyone can get hit by a bus at any time.’ That’s the first thing she said to me. I said, ‘Oh, I have cancer, don’t I?’ And she said, ‘Yes, you do.’ It was the best way to get the news though. It’s absolutely true. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. I just happen to have more of a tactile handle on it.”

That “tactile handle” became fodder for his art.

“Art and theater are how we understand the world around us. To try and make sense of this has been such an important part of my healing. I decided early on I would make this an artistic endeavor. So when I’d get sick, I’d think, ‘Oh great, more stuff to write about tomorrow.’ It was great being able to write through this experience.”

Nelson captures the inside world of being a cancer patient, covering topics from the cryopreservation of sperm to the wacky effects of chemotherapy. “There’s something so absurd about sitting in this big room hooked up to these chemicals. Everyone is on their cell phones. People are in giant wigs. One day I was in chemo, and there was this women in an Austin Powers costume asking if people wanted to shag. I can’t help but try to find the humor in it.”

Cancer may be the link that holds the script together, but at its heart, it’s all about the people.

“I love all the characters you see. It’s about a 38-year-old who gets this crazy news, and his life completely shifts. Cancer is people. It affects people. And it’s not just the people who have the disease. It’s the people who know the people who have it. It’s the doctors. It’s the nurses. It’s so many types of people who have it. There are people in cowboy hats and hijabs and baseball caps,” he said. “There are Germans and French and Chinese. It’s so humbling to become part of this club that affects almost everyone on the planet in some shape or form.”

Nelson, who also teaches solo theater, tells his students that the most personal experiences are the most universal. The more he shares his story, the more people want to share theirs.

“You feel part of this club you don’t necessarily want to be in, but there are all kinds of good people in it.”

Since he has an advanced stage of cancer, doctors talk about containment rather than a cure. Nelson, who is writing a book titled the same as his play, said for now the medicines are working, and he feels really good. He’s spending time with friends and family and focusing on doing what he loves.

He has found laughter to be the best medicine. The trickiest part of the play for him is striking the right balance. “It’s such an explosive topic, and it affects so many people, and some who haven’t been as fortunate as I have in how it has affected them. I deal with this play with humor, but I’m fully aware of the weight that’s involved. Even though I hope we can laugh at this journey, it’s not something I take lightly.”

The play has been therapeutic for him. He has enjoyed wrestling with how to craft the best ending for the play, a far more fun pursuit than focusing on the ending of his life, he said.

“That’s the mind trip of having cancer. There’s always fear about that next scan. Even if it’s gone, it’s still there. It’s how you live with this guillotine hanging over our head. It’s life in the face of death. The fact is that’s really everyone’s story.”

And for him, there’s no better way to tell it than a solo show where he gets up close and personal. 

“My goal is always to be worth the babysitter. It’s an exciting look at a life put on pause and how a person deals with life-changing news. All in all, I want it to be good theater,” said Nelson, who will be making his tenth Piccolo Spoleto appearance. “There’s something so magical about being alone on stage in front of people, telling a story. It gets back to the very roots of this theater tradition. It’s just you and what happened. There’s something so beautiful about that and scary and exciting.”