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Saying thank you with art: Stanford undergrad pens one-woman play on cancer

Camille face painting

These days, most people say “thank you” with a quick e-mail or text. If they’re really grateful they may (gasp!) hand write a note. Stanford senior Camille Brown wrote a one-woman play.

Brown is a science, technology and society major and has penned and performed “Seeing the Spectrum,” a series of intimate monologues telling the story of Camp Kesem at Stanford - a summer camp for the children of cancer patients - from the campers’ perspective. Brown has volunteered with the student-run camp for her entire college career, and during that time she has counseled, hugged, face-painted and sat quietly with countless children facing the reality of a parent with cancer.

It’s a reality Brown knows all too well. The day she graduated high school her family learned of her mother’s diagnosis with Stage 3 colon cancer. Brown’s entire Stanford experience has been colored by cancer and, remarkably, she’s focused on her gratitude. Not for the cancer, of course, but for her Camp Kesem community, from which she says she’s received far more than she’s given.

So, as she approaches her final year of camp (only undergrads can be counselors) she created “Seeing the Spectrum,” with support from a Spark! grant from the Stanford Arts Institute, as her unique and lasting expression of appreciation.

I sat down with Camille Brown on the morning before her first performance - a very special private show for Camp Kesem counselors, campers and families. Here is part of our conversation.

Tell me about your play.

“Seeing the Spectrum” is a collection of eight monologues based on interviews I conducted with 15 Camp Kesem campers about their experiences with their parent’s cancer and with camp. Each monologue is fictionalized to preserve anonymity, and some are composites of two or more interviews.

The idea is to help people outside the program understand the enormous impact that Camp Kesem has on the lives of the campers and their families. For these children it is very important that they have a week that is more than bereavement counseling, but rather is a week of friends, water fights and silliness, because they are going through situations that essentially don’t let them be kids anymore. And Kesem is more than just the week of camp; these kids gain a year-round community.

What inspired you to create it?

I work at the Stanford Humanities Center and they assigned me to write an article about Anna Deavere Smith’s 2012 guest lecture on grace. She explained her process of basing her monologues on interviews. She picks a topic and then talks to a number of people to get multiple perspectives. While working on the article it occurred to me that Camp Kesem would make a great subject.

What has working with Camp Kesem meant to you?

I was initially terrified to do it, because I worried that if I became involved as a counselor I would be projecting my feelings about cancer onto the campers, and it would be a horrible experience for everyone. But in fact, the more work I have done with camp, the more I have just been able to fall in love with the kids and feel that I am combating this frustrating force of cancer in my life by helping to give them a chance to handle it. I actually feel a little bit selfish because the kids are like my therapy. They are so resilient - some going through situations worse than my own - and I feel that I have been able to learn more about myself by trying to be selfless for them.

And my fellow counselors have been invaluable, not only their support, but also their awareness to know not to ask me questions when I don’t want to talk about things. Over the last three years my mom’s cancer has advanced from Stage 3 to Stage 4, and now to metastatic, and it is incredibly helpful to have a community of friends who are sensitive to those kinds of situations.

What have you learned in bringing this project to fruition?

I think the biggest thing for me is the realization that I created a piece of art for a group of people that I really care about. It is like my ‘thank you’ for having been involved for so long in Camp Kesem and for getting so much out of it. That can’t be overemphasized. This play is my way of thanking the Kesem community for all they have given me while I have been at Stanford.

Do you think you will write more plays?

Potentially. This has been such a fascinating project because I got to work on material based on real-life experience, which I love. But it would have to be a very special topic to get me to the same level of creative commitment. After meeting these kids and their parents, I don’t feel like I am creating so much as I am a conduit for their stories. The material is so rich, and so close to me, that it is hard to imagine another project that would, you know, measure up.

“Seeing the Spectrum” will be performed Saturday, January 18 and Sunday, January 19 at 7:30 PM at Koret Pavilion on the Stanford campus. Admission is free to the public, but donations to Camp Kesem are encouraged.

Michael Claeys is the senior communications manager for the Stanford Cancer Institute.

Previously: A special get-away for children of cancer patients and Playwright takes healthcare to the stage
Photo courtesy of Camp Kesem at Stanford

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