Five questions with: Playwright/actor David Lee Nelson


Riverside Theatre — Feb. 28 through March 15

David Lee Nelson (left) and ‘Stages’ director and co-creator, Riverside artistic director Adam Knight. — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

This Friday, Feb. 28, Riverside Theatre’s artistic director Adam Knight brings a story close to his heart to the Gilbert Street stage. Stages is a play that Knight helped develop with long-time friend David Lee Nelson, following Nelson’s diagnosis in 2017 with stage four colon cancer. Throughout the course of his chemotherapy, Nelson kept a blog, which is still ongoing, detailing his experiences and tracking his reactions and emotions. That blog became Stages.

The first entry, dated April 19, 2017, begins, “I’ve decided I’m not going to say ‘chemo’ anymore but instead use the full word. Chemotherapy. The therapy part has a nice ring to it. Chemo sounds like you’re fucked. Like someone jumped you outside of a shitty motel and stole your wallet and took your pants. Like ‘yeah I got chemo’d outside of Days Inn off 95. I was walking to the Waffle House and boom – chemo.'”

That signature Nelson humor, honed through his time as a stand-up comic, threads through all of his autobiographical solo plays, but the topic of cancer is a particularly poignant one to address in this way, requiring a deep level of honesty and self-awareness. Viewers who have a personal connection to the material might be particularly interested in the March 7 performance, which features a talkback afterward with Drs. Muneera R. Kapadia, Alan E. Gunderson and Saima Sharif of the University of Iowa Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center (also a sponsor of the production).

Stages runs through March 15; tickets are $10-30. Nelson answered questions for Little Village via email ahead of opening night.

How long have you known Adam, and why was he your choice to partner with in developing this piece? Was it the first time you’d co-developed a work with someone?

Adam and I grew up in the same hometown and have known each other since high school. We were actually theatrical rivals! We lost touch towards the end of college. Then he moved to New York and I went to graduate school. We reconnected in 2003 and have remained super close ever since.

This is actually the fourth solo show we’ve created together. My background is in theater and my MFA is in acting, but when I finished school I started doing stand-up comedy. One night at a bar on the Lower East Side, Adam said in passing that he always wanted to direct a stand-up show. That made a light bulb go off in my head, and that one sentence altered the course of both of our careers. We opened our first solo show in 2008. It was called The Silence of Lucky (2008), and it was about my love of things that fail. The next show was Status Update (2010), and that was a stand-up comedy tragedy about my divorce. Our third play, The Elephant in my Closet (2012), was about me coming out to my father as a Democrat. So when I got diagnosed with cancer in 2017, we both knew what our next show was going to be about.

The reason I chose Adam to work with, and the reason I think he chooses me, is because we share a very similar aesthetic. We both believe that theater matters. That stories matter. And our number one objective is to make a great play. Yes, messages are important and we hope our plays make a point, but if we don’t engage the audience — if we don’t entertain them — then we aren’t doing our job as theater artists.

That, and we used to be roommates, and it was easy to rehearse at our kitchen table.

How did you know that theater was the right format for this particular story? Has it always been the way you share your voice, or is it a second language you had to learn?

Adam and I were both lucky enough to grow up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s a beautiful city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, roughly halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte. Greenville has done an incredible job of investing in arts education for public school students. From the time Adam and I were in middle school we were studying theater, and in high school had the opportunity to train with some of the best teachers in the country.

So in a way, theater is our first language. It’s the lens through which everything in our lives is filtered.

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David Lee Nelson performs his one-man show ‘Stages’ through March 15 at Riverside Theatre. — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

What has the process been like of coming back to this after having a little space from it? Do you feel more prepared or less prepared to engage with the emotions involved?

I’m not sure I’m ever completely prepared for dealing with the emotions involved with this play. It was certainly a scary time of my life, but sharing the story with people who have had similar experiences helps me continue to process that event even though I’m now three years removed from it. And as with any play, actors are constantly making new discoveries based on the life experience you the artist bring to the text. Just last night I discovered a whole other level of meaning of this passage in Act One. I’ve had three years of life since I first wrote that section. The words hadn’t changed, but I had.

The unique thing about seeing a play performed by the person who wrote it, is that it is a living, breathing document. We are constantly bringing the play into the present and making sure it’s reflective of not just that first contact with a cancer diagnosis, which is often the most dramatic part, but also of what the situation is now.

Humor can be used to distance us from reality, but it can also help us be more radically honest. What’s your view on the role of humor in art and in life (especially at a time when the news seems rife with punchlines in situations that seem grave)? How do you use it best?

I think there is a deep misconception about humor. People often think that if you are laughing at something, that you are somehow taking it less seriously. I don’t think that is the case at all. How many times in life do people laugh in the middle of crying. Or vice versa?

Also, think about why people laugh in the first place? We laugh to break tension. What is more tense than cancer? We also laugh when we recognize a shared experience. Unfortunately, what’s more universal than cancer?

Comedy and tragedy are simply two sides of the same coin and often laughter is our last line of defense against things we are unequipped to handle.

I think our play is really funny because it is an unflinching look at a tense, shared experience that I and everyone who gets it is unequipped to handle.

How long have you been using Patreon, and how has it been valuable to you as a solo artist? How do you think it plays into the future of art and the rising expectation of self-promotion?

Love Patreon!

I’ve been using it since the summer. Part of the source material for Stages is a daily blog I started writing at the beginning of chemotherapy. I’ve been posting four to five times a week for the past three years. These blogs take time, about two hours a day. The money I get from Patreon is the lifeblood of that writing. And it’s a way for people who like my work to feel personally involved in the creation of these posts that brighten up their lives.

You can read my blog at and become a Patreon at