Erin Cronican seems to be unstoppable. The actor, producer, and director is currently starring in a new production of Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning WIT at The Seeing Place Theatre (of which Cronican is the Executive Artistic Director)--while simultaneously undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. With performances underway, we spoke with Cronican about the challenges of staging WIT, The Seeing Place's unique take on it, and what it's like to perform in a play about a cancer patient while undergoing chemotherapy herself.
What drew you to WIT as a play you wanted The Seeing Place to perform?
I’ve known the play for many years, ever since I was cast in the role of Susie in 2002. I knew that someday in the future I’d like to try my hand at the role of Vivian. But I never imagined that the inspiration for the role would be my own metastatic cancer diagnosis (breast cancer) in 2018.
Both you and cast member Robin Friend have personal experience with cancer. Do you think that affects how you perform WIT?
I think it does. We talked a lot about our experiences during the rehearsal process: what it was like being a cancer patient, what it was like to interact with medical teams, and what kind of coping mechanisms we employed--and still employ--when faced with our own mortality.
Given that personal experience, does WIT ever hit too close to home? How do you find the balance between channeling your emotions and not getting too swept up?
I think, if I’m not careful, I could very well get swept up in the emotion of it all. I think this is especially true at the end of the play (when a code is called on Vivian and they try to revive her.) As with much of the play, our director decided to stylize that moment to make sure that neither I nor the audience would be too traumatized. Related to the rest of the play, I use the craft I’ve developed over my years of training to be able to create a bit of a distance between myself and the character, so that I’m clear that though I am telling my story, my story is being told using someone else’s circumstances. That helps me keep everything in perspective.
In addition to rehearsing WIT and running The Seeing Place, you’re also undergoing weekly chemotherapy. How do you do it all?
Well, I’ll tell you--on Tuesdays, which are my chemo days, chemo is pretty much all I do! But seriously, managing The Seeing Place is something I can do from home (or anywhere I choose) and that makes things a lot easier. There are some times--like when I had chemo last Tuesday and then had dress rehearsal that night--when things feel a little overwhelming. But doing a play like this is wonderfully cathartic, so I’m not complaining.
WIT has an award-winning production history, is it daunting at all to tackle something like that?
Oh yes! Almost always, when I tell someone I’m doing the play they respond with, “Wow! I saw it with (Kathleen Chalfant, Judith Light, Cynthia Nixon) and it was wonderful.” It feels like I have very big shoes to fill. Also, as a theater company, The Seeing Place chooses to produce in intimate settings, much different than the larger theaters in which many people may be used to seeing WIT. It’s been wonderful to see such a positive response to our staging and artistic choices.
What about this production are you most excited to share with audiences?
I’m most excited to open up a conversation with our audiences about the systemic problems with the health care system and academia, and about the ways we cope with death and dying. This is something we can all relate to and yet find difficult to talk about. Each performance of WIT ends with a talkback between the artists and the audience, which has been deeply moving for everyone. Also, we have set up a Memorial Wall in our theater where people can light (battery-powered) candles and write messages about loved ones who have dealt with cancer. These messages will stay up, and the candles lit, throughout the entire run of the show.
Margaret Edson’s 'WIT,' directed by Brynn Asha Walker and starring Erin Cronican, will play a three-week limited engagement at The Seeing Place Theatre at The Paradise Factory (64 East 4th Street, NYC 10003). Performances begin Thursday, December 30, 2021 and continue through Sunday, January 16, 2022. For more info and to purchase tickets ($25-$35), see the link below: