Learn all about the 'C-Word'

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright to attend performance
By Stina Sieg | Sep 19, 2011
Photo by: Donated photo Barbara Bates Smith will bring her show, "The C-Word," to Waynesville this Saturday. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson will be in attendance and will participate in a question-and-answer session after the performance.

It has been a decade since local actress Barbara Bates Smith first stepped in front of an audience and opened up about her experience with cancer. In the years since, every performance of “The C-Word: An Art-Meets-Life Cancer Story” has been personal and emotional and special — but none have been quite like her next show.

This Saturday, for the first time, Smith will share her one-woman play with the very person who inspired it: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Margaret Edson. She was the one who gave Smith three words of advice she’ll never forget.

“Make it personal, specific and idiosyncratic,” Smith remembers Edson saying.
Ten years later, Smith still keeps those words close to her heart, and Edson will finally get to see how much. Smith can’t wait.

In her words, Edson is “just dynamite.”

Having her there “will be terribly exciting,” she said. “And I just hope people will be very interested with meeting her.”

This performance brings the women’s connection full-circle. It actually began before they even met. Smith, who makes her living mainly as a traveling actress, was in a Haywood Arts Regional Theatre production of Edson’s “Wit” back in 2001. The show, which has enjoyed extreme success in New York and other locales, is the story of Vivian Bearing, a woman dying of cancer. The play was so popular with HART audiences that, after its initial run, it was held over for more shows. It was between those two blocks of performances that Smith, who had already shaved her head for the play, learned of her own cancer. She went in for her first pre-op appointment Sept. 11.

When it came to her cancer, “everything about it was dramatic, at the beginning,” she said.

It was around this time, as she was dealing with the frightening changes in her body and the world, that she was able to see  Edson speak in Atlanta. She waited for the playwright after the talk and remembers telling her that she felt “more committed than ever” to her role in “Wit.” Even then, both women felt as though they had already known each other for years. Needless to say, they became fast friends.

“She’s just an exciting person,” Smith said.

Before long, Edson gave her what Smith refers to as her “assignment.” Edson had been invited to give a talk about cancer at a health event and decided to send Smith in her stead. When Smith asked for advice, Edson offered those three, fateful words and a well of support.

“Just tell what’s been your true experience,” Smith remembers Edson saying.

And “The C-Word” was born.

In the years since, the one-woman play has made its mark on this area and beyond. Smith has done the show at HART, cancer survivor events, health conferences and more. She has been cancer-free for about a decade now, but she finds it’s gratifying to continue telling her story, to continue touching people with it. Offering comfort to others wasn’t an expectation when she first sat down to write this, and she still sounds a little surprised to hear how much it means to people.

“I was just carrying out an assignment that she (Edson) had given me — and I’m told that it’s hopeful,” she said.

This weekend, as she brings her show to a new audience and her guest of honor, Smith is hopeful for a few things herself. She hopes that people get a kick out of meeting Edson and participate in the question-and-answer session planned. She hopes that Edson thinks that she has done justice to this assignment of hers, given so many years ago.

She also hopes that, in a small way, she can give those in the audience a better understanding of a disease that affects so many. For every person who writes a story or a book about their experience with the disease, there are millions more cancer survivors, caregivers and medical personnel with stories that the public will never hear. By listening to her story, she hopes people gain insight into cancer, not only to help them when it does touch their lives but to open their hearts to those dealing with it now.

“There’s another C word that’s important,” she said. “That’s compassion.”

Smith will present “The C-Word” at 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 24, at Grace Church in the Mountains, 394 N. Haywood St., in Waynesville. The show is free, and will be accompanied by Jeff Sebens on hammered dulcimer. For more information, visit Smith’s website at www.barbarabatessmith.com.