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KU professor of theatre turns cancer diagnosis into comedy for the upcoming KC Fringe

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Mechele Leon in ‘Bladder Interrupted,’ Photo by Rana Esfandiary

What do Eileen Brennan, Patti Hansen, Ruth Sager and Mary Lou Williams have in common? They are famous women who have fought bladder cancer, alongside male celebrities such as Jack Lemmon, Telly Savalas and Jaime Escalante. Bladder cancer is a very lethal cancer with almost 80,000 new cases each year in the United States. Yet, it has earned little public awareness.

“Bladder Interrupted,” which premieres at the KC Fringe Festival this July 20–30 and will perform in New York City in October, is a comic theatre piece that will bring more awareness to this terrible disease while keeping the audience laughing.

Written and performed by Mechele Leon, a professor in the Department of Theatre at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, “Bladder Interrupted” is a one-woman show telling the story of how she was diagnosed with and treated for bladder cancer, and how she survives in the aftermath of bladder removal.

While chairing KU’s department of theatre, Leon was diagnosed with bladder cancer after seeing blood in her urine. She was treated at The University of Kansas Medical Center, whose urology division is ranked among the best in the country. The kind of muscle invasive bladder cancer she had meant getting chemotherapy and undergoing a highly complicated surgery to remove her bladder and construct a substitute.

In the spirit of female entertainers who have told their illness stories with comedy — Tig Notaro and Carrie Fisher come to mind — Leon answers the question, “How do you tell the story of the trauma of a catastrophic illness?” with one word: “Humor.” The fast-paced show follows her tale of woe by using a spate of different ways of telling stories: from fairy tale to podcast, from cooking demonstration to puppet theatre. Leon says of this pastiche, “It’s SNL meets the cancer confessional. It’s an irreverent, self-mocking, and hilarious take on bladders, cancer and living life without the tank.”

Leon is Jewish and said it’s “not too much of a spoiler to say that I make a lot of that fact in a very funny part of my show where I ‘talk to my body’ after surgery.” 

Leon is no stranger to comedy. As an actress, she began her career in improvisation theatre. Now, as a director, teacher and writer, she specializes in the great comic playwright, Molière. Her most recent productions for the KU’s University Theatre were her own translations of Molière’s “The Imaginary Invalid” and “Impromptu at Versailles.”

In creating this piece of theatre, Leon worked with Theresa Buchheister, a director, writer, curator and performer, originally from Manhattan, Kansas, and living in New York since 2004. Buchheister is a founding member and artistic director of Title:Point theatre, a company TimeOut magazine recently called “deeply strange.” She is also the founder of “The Exponential Festival,” a Brooklyn-wide festival of performing arts.

“Bladder Interrupted” is part of the 10-day KC Fringe Festival. Tickets are on sale now at www.kcfringe.org. Performances on Saturday, July 22, at 6 p.m.; Monday, July 24, at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesday, July 26, at 9 p.m.; and Friday, July 28, at 7:30pm, at Phosphor Studios, 1730 Broadway. Tickets are $10. A $5 one-time purchase Fringe Button is also required to again entrance. Note: “Bladder Interrupted” includes adult language and themes and may not be appropriate for all audiences.