In the one-man show 'Stages,' a man's battle with cancer becomes a battle for meaning

Longtime friends turn to the arts to make sense out of chaos

Actor/writer David Lee Nelson (left) of Greenville, S.C., discusses his solo show #x201c;Stages#x201d; with collaborator
Actor/writer David Lee Nelson (left) of Greenville, S.C., discusses his solo show “Stages” with collaborator/director Adam Knight, Riverside Theatre’s producing artistic director. Nelson’s show about his journey with colon cancer will be staged at the Iowa City theater Feb. 28 to March 15, highlighting the March designation as Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. (Rob Merritt)

IOWA CITY — The first five doctors found nothing wrong with the 38-year-old man suffering from excruciating belly pain back in January 2017.

The sixth doctor found a tumor he deemed “gnarly” that had “busted through” David Lee Nelson’s large intestine.

Stage 4 early-onset colon cancer. A diagnosis Nelson said wasn’t even on his radar.

Thus began an ongoing odyssey of emergency surgery, tests, chemotherapy, tests, radiation, tests, an experimental treatment and more tests.

Amid the pain, fear and uncertainties, Nelson found his voice where it’s always been rooted: in writing, acting and standup comedy.

Just as it’s OK to cry over cancer, it’s also OK to laugh and to live. He started a blog — davidleenelson.com/blog — at the start of chemotherapy in April 2017 so he could share his journey with family and friends in one place. It caught on, and in October 2017, the blog provided the raw material for developing his solo show “Stages,” which he’s been taking on the road since 2018.

“I’ve never been so thankful in my life to be a writer than when I got cancer,” Nelson said during a recent trip to Iowa City to rehearse and reshape the show. “I had an outlet to share it with people.”

He will share it from Feb. 28 to March 15 on the Riverside Theatre stage, directed by his dear friend and theatrical collaborator Adam Knight, Riverside’s producing artistic director.


“We hope the show pulls back the veil a little bit and gives people a front-row seat at this very human look at this disease that affects so many people,” Nelson said.

Even he needs a reminder that cancer patients are “still people,” he said, noting that just last year, he was so worried about seeing a friend who wanted to talk to him after her diagnosis of stage 4 breast cancer. He feared she would “look horrible” and “be so sad.”

“Then when I saw her, she was still herself — just bald and annoyed and scared,” he said, “but she was still her funny, jovial self.”

Nelson, 41, and Knight, 40, met in middle school in Greenville, S.C., were “rival” actors in separate high schools, then lost touch for about four years and reconnected when both were working in New York City. They became roommates for five years before their lives again diverged, but their professional lives remained entwined through theater. They’ve created four solo shows together and Nelson played Knight’s Hamlet in 2013 in Charleston, S.C. Their families know each other, they’ve spent Christmases together, Knight flew to Atlanta to be at his friend’s side during surgery and he’ll attend Nelson’s wedding next month.

Creating “Stages” gave them a channel by which to process Nelson’s diagnosis. After his chemotherapy ended, they sat down together for about three days and read through all of the raw material.

“It was such a wonderful time to just see where my mind was, what I was thinking, what were the images we were using,” Nelson said.

“The raw messiness of it,” Knight added. “The original goal was to find order to this major life event that happened. ... To create the story with him was such a pleasure. It gave us somewhere to put that energy.

“Over the years, we’ve developed a really great shorthand way of working, and every show’s been very different. What we tend to do is find a visual language and find a way to tell the story,” he said.


“The trick of solo shows sometimes is that they can feel too navel-gazing, especially if they’re autobiographical. With this story, because everyone’s experiences are so personal, the thing that we aimed for was to make sure this play wasn’t trying to be universal. It’s David’s story.”

“I would never claim to speak for anyone other than myself,” Nelson said.

But it is resonating with people whose lives have been touched by cancer, either personally or with love ones. It’s also resonating with the medical community, Nelson said.

Riverside Theatre is partnering with the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center in Iowa City for some special programming to highlight the March designation of Colorectal Cancer Awareness.

“Whenever a doctor sees it, I invariably hear that for the first time, they saw the human effect of medicine,” Nelson said. “ ... What are the real side effects — not just that you get sick, but that you can’t work, and what is that like? ... Doing this show for medical professionals is such a joy — and for regular people.

“But I can always tell whose been through it,” he said. “I can always tell when I’m performing by what they’re laughing at, what they’re nodding at, what they’re crying at — and the caretakers.”

Nelson’s fiancee, Jaimie Malphrus, plays a “really big” part in the play.

“I read a blog once about how sick people are deified for how brave they are. Yeah, sure, we’re brave, but we also forget to load the dishwasher,” he said with a laugh. “Jaimie’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s really strong, but he doesn’t know how to make a bed.’”

He and Knight never wanted to create a play where the audience would leave feeling emotionally manipulated. They were striving for an honest look at a person, “with all the good, all the bad — and creating a good play,” Nelson said. “There’s nothing worse than a bad cancer play.”

Instead, Knight said this show allows audiences “to be in the room, and to bring to it what they wish to bring and take out of it what they wish to take out of it.”


Even though the show was written two years ago, “the play is very much a living, breathing thing,” Nelson said, as his journey moves forward.

Looking back, he said the play “has been cathartic to write, it was healing to write, it was frustrating to write, and performing it — the play goes there. We’re reliving a very scary time in my life that is very much still present with me, and that’s different than when we first wrote it.”

“It’s not a static thing writing-wise, either,” Knight said. “There’s parts of the play that are being changed, still being revised.”

“The ending is brand-new for this as new information happens,” Nelson said. “We want to make sure the play is really living in the moment, both for me and for the audience, as well.”

“For theater to work, it has to be present,” said Knight, who is directing the show with that same sense of presence. “That’s the biggest difference between theater and film. It needs to constantly feel of the now, and if you’re trying to recreate something that worked two years ago or one year ago, that’s a loser’s game. The audience is going to sense that something’s ‘off’ about it. We’re trying to be with it in the room and to listen to what it is now.”

Working through this process with a person so close to his heart who is living with cancer has taught Knight “the power of theater to make sense of the world we live in.”

“An event like this is so hard to process,” he said, “and I’ve spent so many nights unable to go to sleep thinking about it. But this show is in many ways a love letter to the power of theater, the power of stories to connect us and to suck the marrow out of life — to understand pain, to enjoy (life) in a deeper, richer way. And it’s allowed me to really understand from my own perspective more about what David’s going through right now. Most of the time we can talk about baseball or basketball, but it’s a way to be involved in this other journey.”

“It’s been a strange journey,” Nelson said. “Obviously, I would never choose it, but it’s not been without its moments of beauty and pathos. And it really has changed my life in every conceivable way.”


Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Get Out!

• What: “Stages,” solo show written by and starring David Lee Nelson

• Where: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City

• When: Feb. 28 to March 15; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

• Run time: 75 minutes, no intermission

• Tickets: $30 adults, $28 ages 60 and over and 30 and under, $24 military, $10 students; Riversidetheatre.org/stages

• Artist’s website: Davidleenelson.com

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