Susan Jeremy admits she can't help that most of her work is funny. This remains true of her latest one-woman play, Teacher in the House: A True Tale of Urban Survival, despite its rather gloomy origins. Coming soon to Piccolo Fringe, Jeremy's fifth solo project is her most revealing as it touches on her personal battle with and recovery from breast cancer.
"But how funny can a cancer diagnosis be?" Jeremy asks. "Let's just say I had to find humor in the rigorous treatment and the uncertainty of my future. That is how I survived. So yes, I make cancer amusing in respect to how it affected me. I was bald and looked like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family."
But before Jeremy had to face the drama of her adult life, and even before she was certifiably funny, she was a natural-born artist. With a father who was a lindy hop dancer in the 1940s and a childhood spent imitating her idol Lily Tomlin at relatives' parties, she was destined for a life of performing.
Jeremy began her career as a stand-up comic touring with the likes of Ellen Degeneres and Jim Carrey before deciding to write her own plays. Based in New York City, she's now part of Watson Arts, based out of the world-famous ETC and founded by her writing partner of 15 years, Mary Fulman. The theater company produces plays written for and about women, so Jeremy and her autobiographical tendencies have been a welcome addition.
She wrote the popular P.S. 69, also performed at Piccolo to two sold-out rooms at Theatre 99 in 2007, based on her experiences as a substitute teacher in Brooklyn. Since Jeremy is a physical mimic on stage up there all on her lonesome, she wound up creating and performing a total of 24 characters for P.S. 69.
In Teacher in the House, a story that began as a book in 2010, Jeremy will play 10 different characters at a Manhattan crime scene reminiscent of an episode of Law and Order, a show Jeremy watched "every day while stuck at home doing chemotherapy." The play is based on a woman who is one of several teachers who educate children in their NYC homes, a story that draws inspiration from Jeremy's real-life occupation of teaching children with life-threatening illnesses. But her own sickness was not a story she was necessarily ready to tell for some time.
"I could not write about my cancer experience right away because I was traumatized by it," she says. "So I waited for about two years. I never thought I could relive that time in my life on stage and do it comically. But this is who I am and this is how I survive what life throws me. This new show is truly the most meaningful to me and to those that know me. I am alive and the show is a testament to anyone who has overcome an illness or knows someone living with one."
"I hope audiences will leave smiling," she explains, "and hug whoever is in their life that is affected by an illness. I hope viewers will see the humor it takes to keep spirits up when a situation may look dire, and the absurdity of everyday realities."