By any measure, Leslie Charipar has lived through a couple of lousy years.
“Lived through” is no mere turn of phrase. Charipar has been in the grips of not one, not two, but three cancers — breast, lung and thyroid — not to mention blood clots in her brain. At the moment, she’s on the upside of things.
“Last we checked, there was no cancer in there,” she tells me over coffee in the New Bo district of Cedar Rapids. Charipar, who recently departed Theatre Cedar Rapids where she has been the artistic director for nearly a decade, is now two years and a couple of weeks past her original diagnosis of breast cancer.
But there’s another checkup in July, and there’s reconstruction surgery in the offing, and there are medications to manage. Nothing is like it was.
“I am 50 years old and for the first time in my life, I considered death,” Charipar says.
The physical challenges have been onerous enough, but she was expecting that.
“The mental and emotional parts of the cancer took me by surprise,” she says. She speaks of the need to “put your head down” and follow the treatment regimen. But the end of that regimen isn’t the end.
“I still wake up in the morning and think, ‘Holy shit, I had cancer.’ I still wake up in the morning and think, ‘I don’t have nipples anymore.’”
This isn’t how she expected to feel.
“I thought I was going to have this sense of gratitude and purpose following this scary experience,” she says. “And I didn’t. Mostly, I asked why didn’t the cancer kill me.”
In the midst of her treatment, her romantic relationship fell apart, a victim of bad timing and overwhelming crisis.
“We just didn’t know how to do it,” Charipar says. “We didn’t have enough time to get into a groove. It was a new relationship with cancer on top of it.”
In the aftermath of all this, she found herself in a bad place: “I haven’t had a good reason to get out of bed in a while.”
But as anyone who knows Charipar can attest, she’s indomitable. And she believes artistic practice can offer healing and understanding. So she’s preparing to leave on a quest in search of both — a quest that will lead to the creation of a new solo theater piece.
Here’s the plan: Charipar will take to the road in August, seeking out people who she can talk with about life’s challenges and the reservoirs of strength that keep them going. Her route, which will connect her with old friends as well as with willing strangers, will keep her on the road for a couple of months.
At the heart of her inquiries is an investigation into perspective changes in light of difficulties.
“When things happen in your life that change your perspective,” she says, “you have to incorporate that new perspective into your life.”
She plans to return to Cedar Rapids ready to get to work on the new piece in earnest.
“I’m actually going to write it as I’m going,” she explains. “I hope to come back with a draft, because when I get back, I want to get it on its feet and start working on it.”
She’s eager to get the piece to the stage. “I want to open within a year of the moment I drive away. Less if I can. This is a put my money where my mouth is moment.”
Speaking of money, Charipar has launched a campaign on crowdfunding site Indiegogo to support the venture.
Under the auspices of Urban Theater Project, Charipar’s own project that has been on hiatus for several years, she is seeking funding for Reasons for Living or If You’re Strong, You’re Fucked: a coming of middle-age story.
The fundraising goal is ambitious. Charipar is seeking to raise $100,000 by August 3.
Some potential funders might be taken aback when they see her plans for the money. In addition to expenses directly related to the creation of the work, Charipar is hoping to pay off her medical bills, pay ahead on her mortgage and pay off her students loans. It will take north of $72,000 to wipe out her debt from her graduate students in theater at Chicago’s DePaul University.
Charipar makes a strong case that erasing her debt will make her better able to continue to be a working artist in the community and will allow Urban Theatre Project to “operate more like a business and less like a charity.”
“The theory is it will make me more agile and let me ask for money less [in the future],” she explains.
She’s also realistic about the size of her goal. “I will adapt the project to be paid for by however much I raise,” she says.
Which is to say that Reasons for Living is a go. For Charipar, it isn’t optional.
“I need something fresh to get me excited about something again,” she says. She hopes to rediscover her lost confidence and her taste for risk taking as she travels the country. And she’s seeking the spark of creativity, too.
“I’m just going to see what happens. I’m just going to get in my car and go, and then I will make art out of it.” She pauses. She chuckles. “Theoretically,” she says. “That’s the plan anyway.”