Director on how cancer did not stop Edinburgh Festival debut

Theatre director and cancer survivor Raz Shaw
Theatre director and cancer survivor Raz Shaw
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It was May 1995. I was running a telesales company selling light bulbs and cleaning chemicals. It was destroying what little was left of my soul. The rest had been eroded by a fierce gambling addiction and a knowledge that I wasn’t meant for the life I was currently leading. I had known from the age of 15 that I had a vocation but for a thousand different reasons I had strayed from it.

The telephone rang. It was my friend Debbie.

“Look, I have a proposition for you. I have written a play and I want you to direct it. We have a slot at the Gilded Balloon at the Edinburgh Festival this August. I know you haven’t directed before but I think it would be a new start for you”.

My heart skipped a beat. Up until this point, my need to make theatre had been well and truly buried beneath the insanity of my addiction and I couldn’t see a way out.

“There’s just one condition,” Debbie said. “You have to leave that awful job IMMEDIATELY.”

“Immediately?”

“TODAY.”

I put the phone down, sat back on the sofa and stared into Tufnell Park Space. And stared and stared. This wasn’t a moment, it was THE moment. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that my whole future began at this moment. I picked up the phone, called my work and told them that I was leaving. I felt tears roll down my cheeks. Tears of relief, fear and euphoria. A few weeks later I found myself in a rehearsal room in Liverpool doing some actual proper directing. And it was scarily joyous and joyously scary. And, somehow, I appeared to be getting away with it. It seems instinct, a touch of theatrical know-how and a whole lot of blagging was getting me through.

And then it happened. I woke up one morning with a neck the size of Hulk Hogan’s thigh. After much avoidance/procrastination, I went to my GP. He was calm but firm and told me to get an X-ray THAT DAY. Three days later (#thankyouNHS) I was at the Royal Marsden Hospital being diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. A couple of days after that, following a quick detour to the fertility clinic to make a ‘deposit’, I was having chemo.

We postponed rehearsals for a while whilst I soaked all this in, but I wasn’t going to let a little bit of cancer stop me indefinitely. So eventually – dazed, swollen, but not cowed – I dipped my toes back into the theatrical sea.

You might have thought that with all that was going on, my gambling addiction would be taking a back seat. Not at all. In fact, just the opposite. It upped its game in order to compete with the opposition. So for the next few weeks if I wasn’t at the hospital or in a rehearsal room, I could be found at the blackjack table in Napoleon’s Casino.

I was put on a three-week treatment cycle. I was due my third cycle two days before going up to Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my cancer wasn’t playing ball. Turns out my cancer was not a theatre-lover or a festival-goer. I arrived at the Royal Marsden knowing I wasn’t feeling at the top of my game. The first thing you do before you are administered chemo is have a blood test. If your white count is low it means your immune system is dodgy and thus having chemo is not advisable. The nice junior consultant sat me down and told me that the chemo routine I had been having hadn’t been working and was the reason I felt like death. My pun not hers. Very gently she told me that my cancer was growing not shrinking and they would have to admit me immediately as there was no time to waste and I would be in hospital for at least ten days.

And for the first time since my diagnosis I couldn’t hold back the tears. And the straw that broke cancer boy’s back wasn’t the dodgy immune system or the growing mass inside me. It was the ten days. Ten days of incarceration. Ten days of isolation. But most importantly ten days of NOT taking the first show I was ever going to direct to the Edinburgh Festival. And that was the one thing I absolutely knew had to happen. Saying no to Edinburgh would have been like my future slamming the door in my puffed-up face. And so belligerent 28-year-old me put his foot down. To be fair to the brilliant people at the Marsden, they listened to me and worked out a plan. Their mission was simple: accommodate my need to get to Edinburgh. And make sure I didn’t die along the way.

And I am pleased to report that what seemed like mission impossible eventually became mission accomplished. The Edinburgh Festival is a crazy kaleidoscopic month of beauty, wonder and many many people. When you have stage 4 cancer and your immune system is shot to pieces, it can feel like a bit of a war zone. But armed with a suitcase full of medication, and helped by some incredible human beings, I made it through pretty much intact. And even more remarkably, the show got great reviews.

And once back on Royal Marsden terra firma my revised chemo cycle was hardcore (including many side effects such as 350 mouth ulcers in one go) but effective. And eventually the mass inside me started to recede and, after four more months of chemo and three months of radiotherapy, on 26 March 1996, I was given the all clear. On 10 April the same year I stopped gambling too. My new life as a cancer-free non-gambling theatre director had officially begun and more than 20 years later that’s the life I am still living.

When I reflected on all that had happened, I realised I had quite a story to tell. And so I wrote some words and the words eventually became a book. And in March this year the book was published. It’s called Death and The Elephant: How Cancer Saved My Life.

And now things have come full circle as I am about to take another show to Edinburgh. Since that first eventful trip, I have been to the festival often, and every time I go back I get a weird twinge of 1995 cancer nostalgia. This year I am directing a beautiful play by Ian Kershaw gloriously titled The Greatest Play in the History of the World… at the Traverse. It continues my collaboration with the annoyingly brilliant Julie Hesmondhalgh (who just happens to be Ian’s wife) after working together in 2016 on the Pulitzer-prize winning cancer play Wit by the wonderful Margaret Edson.

The Greatest Play in the History of the World… is a play about hope, love, and the beauty of possibilities. It’s a play about making the most of the minutiae of every moment and not forgetting to make hay whilst that there sun shines. Twenty-three years ago, a cancer-ridden young man on a train to the Edinburgh Festival was trying to do just that. He was excited and grateful to be directing his first play and if that went well, maybe everything else would work itself out too. And maybe it will.