Minnesota Oncology Patient and Playwright Tackles Cancer with Humor and Heart

A Stage III testicular cancer diagnosis may not seem like a laughing matter. But when Minnesota Oncology patient Max Wojtanowicz faced this diagnosis at 30 years old, he dealt with it in the best way he knew how – by writing about it. He then turned his journals into a musical comedy and has been touring the show across the state for the past year and a half to rave reviews.

“It’s been really, really remarkable,” he says, shaking his head.

Wojtanowicz, an actor and playwright, was diagnosed on January 5, 2016. He was 30 years old and about to begin rehearsals for the world premiere run of  “C” and Theatre Latte Da.

When he confided in his friend Nikki Swoboda, education director at Stages Theatre in Hopkins, she suggested that he keep a journal to document his experience and possibly write a play about it. Wojtanowicz was skeptical about turning his cancer diagnosis and treatment into a production, but he took her advice and chronicled the ups and downs of his journey on a CaringBridge site.

Wojtanowicz’s treatment included surgery and three rounds of chemotherapy in February through April of 2016. His cancer had not spread to the lymph nodes, so he did not need radiation. As he experienced the physical and emotional struggles of cancer treatment, Wojtanowicz documented it with candor and humor. As he journaled, Swoboda helped him organize his thoughts and experiences into a story that could work for theatre.

{image_1}They applied for the Fringe Festival, a venue Wojtanowicz was familiar with from previous productions he wrote and acted in. Fringe Festival shows are chosed on a lottery basis, and as luck would have it, Wojtanowicz’s still-being-written story was selected for the festival.

“We had production meetings in chemo,” Wojtanowicz says. The writing process evolved to include a tribute to all of the people who helped Wojtanowicz during his diagnosis and treatment, and a PSA song encouraging men to check themselves. But after much of the writing and composing was completed, a longtime director friend of Wojtanowicz’s read it and asked him an important question: “What’s the real message here?”

{image_3}Wojtanowicz spent time thinking about what his diagnosis really meant, and it brought up fears about mortality as well as feelings of grief and loss over the death of his father John in 2009 after a three-year battle with another form of cancer, Multiple Myeloma.

“I would think about him a lot,” Wojtanowicz says. “He fought so long and so hard even though he faced a terminal diagnosis. Even though I was only in treatment for three months with a good prognosis, I found that I could draw strength from my father’s journey. He was very brave.”

Although the play tells Wojtanowicz’s cancer story, it’s not only about cancer. The message of finding strength in yourself and others applies to any challenge a person might be facing. “Nobody’s way of fighting looks the same,” he says. “I encourage the audience to find out what works for them.”

{image_4}“BALL: A Musical Tribute to My Lost Testicle” has now toured across Minnesota and in South Dakota. Audience members have shared with Wojtanowicz that the play has inspired them to overcome challenges. The show has even potentially saved lives. Testicular cancer diagnosis have come from audience members doing self exams as a result of the show’s PSA.

Wojtanowicz has applied for an Arts Tour Minnesota grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. The grant would provide funding to bring the show around the state to various audiences of medical providers, patients and the public, all of whom can gain something from his encouraging story.

“It is connecting with people in a way that’s inspiring them to action and self care,” he says. “It’s remarkable.”

See the show:

BALL: A Musical Tribute To My Lost Testicle
Written and Performed by:  Max Wojtanowicz
Date: Sunday, October 1, 2017
Time: 4 p.m. (1-hour show with a Q&A session following)
Where: Good Samaritan United Methodist, 5730 Grove St, Edina, MN 55436

Admission is free; a $15 suggested donation per person will be collected at the door

Directed by: Nikki Swoboda
With original music by: Andrew Cooke, Michael Gruber, Jason Hansen

Max is a native of Rice, Minnesota, a graduate of St Olaf College, and currently in remission from stage three testicular cancer. Max has performed with the Children’s Theatre Company, Ten Thousand Things, Jungle Theater, Illusion Theater, Guthrie Theater, Frank Theatre, Theater Latte Da, Park Square Theatre, Paul Bunyan Playhouse, and Nautilus Music-Theater, where he was a part of their Ivey Award-winning production of Ordinary Days. Max’s monthly cabaret series, Musical Mondays at Hell’s Kitchen, is in its fifth year of providing artists with performance and networking opportunities. He is the artistic director of The Catalysts.

Watch Max Wojtanowicz talk about the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g8880V4FGSg


Press Quotes

"Friends, I'm calling it: Ball is the best show of the Fringe and Max Wojtanowicz gives the best performance of the Fringe. As funny and musically delightful as it is heartfelt and moving." -- Jill Schafer for Cherry and Spoon

"We have a winner. Max Wojtanowicz’s show is charming, witty, moving and thoroughly enjoyable. Singing about his journey as a survivor of testicular cancer, Wojtanowicz is sharp and wry, avoidingwhat he calls the “pastelization of cancer.” And because he has such charisma, and a gorgeous voice, Ball is not so much about what he lost, but the grace, beauty and elegance that he gained from his traumatic survivor’s experience." -- Rohan Preston for the Star Tribune

"And frankly, he knocks the damn thing out of the park. Whether it’s a telling reinterpretation of a pre-existing song from the musical theater canon, or taking one of those tunes and offering up his own satirical lyrics, or presenting a completely original song of his own, Wojtanowicz slays this thing. This is a story that needs to be told, in the hands of a storyteller who knows exactly how to tell it. Ball is fantastic. Max as a performer is inspiring." -- Matthew Everett for Single White Fringe Geek

"Max Wojtanowicz has turned his tragedy into a hilarious and heartwarming musical triumph. Sensitively but not cloyingly directed by his longtime partner in crime Nikki Swoboda, and featuring spot on original tunes by Jason Hansen, Michael Gruber, and music director Andrew Cooke, Mr. Wojtanowicz has created one of the most life-affirming shows of the festival." -- Todd O'Dowd for L'etoile Magazine

"I honestly don’t even know where to begin. This show has everything. If Ball was the only Fringe show I saw, I'd be completely satisfied." -- Laura Van Zandt for One Girl Two Cities

Audience Responses

This is honest, personal, vulnerable, and HILARIOUS work, perfectly composed, meticulously staged, and beautifully performed. My life is enriched for having seen it. --Andrew T.

The title says it all. Definitely a must see this year. The emotional impact is astounding. -- Matt P.

Max's joyful living runs headfirst into cancer's nastiness to deliver an incredible opportunity for reflection and inspiration. It's part PSA mixed with rich storytelling and musical magic that demonstrates a healthy way to process and heal while getting real about pain. -- Tara D.

Max took us through his journey and made us laugh, cry, and love him. He bares his heart to you, it was so honest and wonderful. I walked away feeling better about humanity than I have in a while. It was beautiful, brave, and damn funny. -- Stephanie S.

Max Wojtanowicz opens the door to an all-too-common medical nightmare as only he can, masterfully weaving together music, storytelling, and even a little puppetry. This true story of fighting cancer and all that goes with it, physically, emotionally, and psychologically is beautiful and raw. (Everything in this show has happened in the last 8 months!) Max is hilarious, vulnerable and greatful. If you know someone who has or had cancer, see this show. If you have a body part that could someday get cancer, see this show. -- Katie K.

Ball takes an nontraditional narrative approach by celebrating the journey, both the good and the difficult parts. It doesn't shy away from the tough stuff, but instead looks life straight in the eye and laughs with joy. The thing that makes this show special is that it wholeheartedly acknowledges the power of laughter as an essential component for recovery, not just for Max but for everyone. Max and his creative team provided us a safe space to confront the challenges in our own lives through his story, and he warmly invited us to open the door and feel all the feelings. It's emotionally immersive and incredibly right for this moment in time. -- Scotty G.

Crafted with the skill and finesse of professionals know know their stuff and presented with the panache of a seasoned and gifted performer, this show would be great on those two points alone. Add to it the searingly honest and vulnerable heart of Max and you have something that makes a profound shift in your heart. All composers and creative staff are to be congratulated on creating such a strong work that must most definitely brings its kaleidoscope of emotions to more audiences. Theatre is meant to be cathartic: creating this show was that for Max, watching it was that for me. --Lori C.




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