Alberta Cancer Foundation

Tumour Humour

Photo by Trudie Lee Photography

In his five-star performance of This Is Cancer at the 2010 Edmonton International Fringe Festival in August, former Calgarian Bruce Horak donned Joker-like makeup and a bow-tie to become a guy named Cancer and woo the sold-out crowd. It turns out that Cancer loves us. It’s a toxic love, for sure, but he really cares for us – and he’s an attention junkie.

LEAP: What led to the development of Cancer, the character?

Horak: I had a bouffon clown character, a kind of grotesque anti-clown, called “Foof.” He was a demon and I played him at cabarets, trying to convince audience members to let him drag one of them to hell. I showed up at Toronto’s Lunacy Cabaret one night and I was approached by another performer who felt my character’s name was too similar to hers, which had a much longer history. That day I played much the same show, only I called myself “Cancer” and tried to convince audience members to take me home. The change was electric. Later we developed a 75-minute show.

LEAP: In your show, you regularly engage audience members. At one point in your Edmonton show, you singled out a guy and announced that you – Cancer – were going home with him. He said later that, at that moment, he went cold. Then you challenged him to a fight with foam pool noodles, so he could “beat Cancer.” Does everyone find Cancer funny?

Horak: Once I excerpted that part of the show for a burlesque night. I had this tipsy 21-year-old tottering in high heels on stage, swatting at me with the noodle. Then a lady runs up, grabs the noodle from the girl and everyone’s wondering why. She pulls off her wig and screams, “You know why? That’s why, you son of a bitch!” and starts hitting me as hard as she can. After the show, co-creator and director Rebecca Northan came to get me backstage and said “Uh, Bruce, you’d better come out. That lady is still here and she’s crying.” I sat down with her and she thanked me – hugged me – told me it was the first time she’d laughed at cancer. Then this guy walks over and punches me in the head, saying, “I have cancer and that wasn’t funny.” But the lady said to me afterwards, “That man was the one who needed to hit you with a noodle.” She was right; it becomes the effigy that’s important.

LEAP: Does the fact that you had bilateral retinoblastoma, a kind of cancer of the eye, as a baby give you some cred to play Cancer?

Horak: I think so; it lets the audience be more responsive. I had one eye removed and I have about nine per cent vision in my other eye. The addition of the voice recordings of my mother and father to the show help, too. I made the tape of my father when we were writing his obituary in Calgary shortly before he died in 2003. He had had retinoblastoma in one eye as a child, too, and he later developed oesophageal cancer.

LEAP: Does the higher incidence of second cancers in people who’ve had retinoblastoma as children scare you?

Horak: My mentor [and fellow clown], Mike Kennard, taught me that you have to go where the fear is, to shine a flashlight on what scares you. We’re all dying – I just hope that I could handle it as gracefully as my dad did. I talked to a woman once who had Stage IV cancer. She told me that if I’d called her up for a noodle fight, she would have danced with me instead, because that was her experience with cancer – it was a dance.

Photos by Trudie Lee Photography

Laugh At the Effigy

Bruce Horak’s award-winning stage show, This Is Cancer, returns to the Edmonton International Fringe Festival in 2011.

If you’d like your chance to wallop Cancer, or at least to point at him, hurl insults and laugh, Horak and partner Rebecca Northan urge you to visit for a listing of upcoming performances.

Make 2X the impact