Waltz into Darkness: Touring one-man play ‘The Actual Dance’ examines breast cancer from husband’s perspective

Writer-performer Samuel Simon
Writer-performer Samuel Simon

Samuel Simon calls it his “fourth career.” Now a playwright and performer in his late sixties, it took him a full career to find his calling. After decades of being a lawyer, advocate and businessman, it was his wife’s brush with breast cancer and mortality that pushed him in semi-retirement out from behind a desk and conference calls to standing alone on stage for “The Actual Dance,” coming to Center Stage Theater this Thursday. How did this happen?

“I’m an actor and a playwright,” he says. “And that is such an incredible thing to hear myself say.” Right out of law school he worked for Ralph Nader, then joined the Army, then worked in D.C. and at the Federal Trade Commission. He then created a public relations firm at the dawn of the Internet, which turned out to be nicely profitable, enough to retire. In 2000 Mr. Simon started to take improv classes in New York City for personal development, taught by veterans from The Second City and the Groundlings. Around the same time, his wife Susan was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer.

At first he didn’t bring those experiences into improv. These were major life decisions he was going through, having to figure out exactly how to help his wife, help himself, and how to face death, or as he says in his statement, “How to dance the last dance” with his wife, and how to create “the ultimate consummation of our love.”

But before that, characters came out in improv, among them a caricature of Susan’s doctor. People responded well, and by 2012, Mr. Simon had hired a dramaturge to help shape his writing and his characters into a play. In two months they had the full script, hosted a reading, and the reactions that told him to press forward.

“I had friends coming up to me,” he says, “like one man, he said, ‘I had prostate cancer and I never understood why my wife acted the way she did, and now I think I know.’ ” Others commended Mr. Simon on giving voice to the other half of the couple in a cancer-stricken relationship. Nobody, they told him, has told the man’s side of breast cancer.

“I know now this is what I need to do with my life,” says Mr. Simon. “It’s been like a gift. But it’s also been like walking off a cliff.”

Susan knew her husband was working on a play, but at first he didn’t want to read it to her. “I don’t know why I didn’t,” he says. When a visit with friends prompted a reading, he finally relented. “There were tears.

“I say things I learned that many people think but don’t say out loud because people may think you’re crazy,” he says. “I sat with my mother when she died, and I did feel her spirit leave her body. You think you’re crazy at the time.”

Now for the good news. Susan recovered and now is fitter than she was before her diagnosis, placing her in a very small percentile. She has walked 12 of her 14 years since the diagnosis in the Avon Breast Cancer Walk, and this performance coincides with the walk through Santa Barbara. (Mr. Simon’s been on four walks.)

“The Actual Dance” has played New York, D.C., Indianapolis, and in his home state of Virginia, and he hopes to bring it to more places after Santa Barbara.

“It’s a love story and it has a happy ending,” he says, summing it all up.

The Actual Dance
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Center Stage Theater, Paseo Nuevo
Cost: $18 general, $12 crew or walkers from Avon Walk for Breast Cancer
Information: 963-0408, centerstagetheater.org

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