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How do you start a story when you might not be around to finish it?

That was the question facing award-winning playwright Christopher Shinn after he was diagnosed with a cancer called Ewing sarcoma in late 2012.The prognosis, as he told his friends, was "very poor."

Chris was 37 at the time. He may not have been a household name, but his gripping work had been performed on stages from London to Broadway. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Lortel and Olivier award winner, and a faculty member at the New School for Drama. And now he was grappling with the end of his life.


What else was he going to do but write a play?

Christopher Shinn in 2012. I met Chris in the fall of 2012 when his play "Now or Later" had its American premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where I was working at the time. I can still remember the day he posted the news of his illness to Facebook — accompanied by a photo of his partially amputated leg. It was just six months since I'd last seen him in person.

"I'd always imagined I'd live to ninety and write twenty or thirty plays — it had never occurred to me that my career might be shorter than that," he told me.

First drafts are always rough — especially when they could be the last.

"Writing this play was a particularly intense experience," he explained via email.

"I really had to balance two things: faith that I'd be well enough to write and complete the play, and acceptance of the possibility that at any time I could be interrupted. I had to convince myself that the work would not be for nothing if I didn't get to finish it or it was delayed. That was hard since pretty much the only payoff of writing is in the finishing!"

Chris' goal was to do what he always did: tell the truth.

As he started the first of what would ultimately become 19 cycles of chemotherapy, Chris found himself reflecting on his childhood in Wethersfield, Connecticut, and the isolation he felt growing up as a gay teenager. He thought about his own struggles with love and intimacy — and the fact that his fiancé would be left behind to live without him. “I told [my fiancé], 'You have to love again' — it was my deepest wish that he love again," Chris said in an interview with The New York Times.

Deborah Hedwall in the world premiere of "An Opening in Time." Photo by T. Charles Erickson/Hartford Stage.

And then, an ending came that he wasn't expecting.

Chris's long-term relationship with his fiancé came to a tumultuous end in the winter of 2014.

Between the emotional devastation of the breakup and the ongoing cancer treatments, Chris worried that he'd never finish the play. As he told the Times, “There were so many fears. This play made me look deeper. Why have I had difficulty loving? Why haven't I been able to make successful intimacy last?"

But soon one ending led to another, more uplifting one.

The breakup was hard, but reckoning with those questions helped Chris to write a pivotal confrontation scene — and ultimately finish the play. "I remember finishing it just in advance of scans I was having at my hospital, and being terrified that finishing the play meant, in some bizarre logic ... that my life was now about to end," he said.

Adam Poss and Liam Benzvi in the world premiere of "Teddy Ferrara." Photo by Liz Lauren/Goodman Theatre. "Teddy Ferrara" is having its London premiere in October 2015, and Chris made several changes to the script to make it more trans-inclusive.

Though his life was still full of questions, Chris had a finished script — and soon, he had a production.

"An Opening in Time" began its world premiere run on Sept. 17, 2015, at Hartford Stage — mere miles from Chris' childhood home in Wethersfield, which is also the setting of the play.

And all those endings that he'd battled with since late 2012? They gave way to new beginnings.

Not only did Chris live to see his play on stage, but he recently learned that his cancer is in remission.

After six months in clinical trials, Chris is currently NED, which means "no evidence of disease."

"You never want to get ahead of yourself too much," he told me. "So I often remind myself that I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and ... haha. But it's true."

Chris Shinn answers questions about "An Opening in Time" for a crowd at the Noah Webster Library in West Hartford, Connecticut. Photo by Charles MacNaughton, website and new media manager for Hartford Stage.

As he puts it, "You never know when your time is up — so every play may be the last play."

But Chris is discovering more hope and optimism. As he told the Times, he's found himself thinking: "Wait a minute, I might live. I want more in my life. What's going to happen to me? When will I fall in love again? I feel like part of my soul is coming back to life."

And of course, this new outlook on life brought a new play with it."The new play is about God. ... It feels like the kind of play you'd read in the middle of a writer's career, not at the end," he told me. "I'm envisioning a future of many more plays now."

Joy

1991 blooper clip of Robin Williams and Elmo is a wholesome nugget of comedic genius

Robin Williams is still bringing smiles to faces after all these years.

Robin Williams and Elmo (Kevin Clash) bloopers.

The late Robin Williams could make picking out socks funny, so pairing him with the fuzzy red monster Elmo was bound to be pure wholesome gold. Honestly, how the puppeteer, Kevin Clash, didn’t completely break character and bust out laughing is a miracle. In this short outtake clip, you get to see Williams crack a few jokes in his signature style while Elmo tries desperately to keep it together.

Williams has been a household name since what seems like the beginning of time, and before his death in 2014, he would make frequent appearances on "Sesame Street." The late actor played so many roles that if you were ask 10 different people what their favorite was, you’d likely get 10 different answers. But for the kids who spent their childhoods watching PBS, they got to see him being silly with his favorite monsters and a giant yellow canary. At least I think Big Bird is a canary.

When he stopped by "Sesame Street" for the special “Big Bird's Birthday or Let Me Eat Cake” in 1991, he was there to show Elmo all of the wonderful things you could do with a stick. Williams turns the stick into a hockey stick and a baton before losing his composure and walking off camera. The entire time, Elmo looks enthralled … if puppets can look enthralled. He’s definitely paying attention before slumping over at the realization that Williams goofed a line. But the actor comes back to continue the scene before Elmo slinks down inside his box after getting Williams’ name wrong, which causes his human co-star to take his stick and leave.

The little blooper reel is so cute and pure that it makes you feel good for a few minutes. For an additional boost of serotonin, check out this other (perfectly executed) clip about conflict that Williams did with the two-headed monster. He certainly had a way of engaging his audience, so it makes sense that even after all of these years, he's still greatly missed.

This article originally appeared on 08.21.18


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