If you thought you were going to die, would you still try to tell one last story? This writer did.
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?
"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.
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.
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."
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."