Humour appears in oblivion

Emma Lange nearly lost everything to brain cancer but in the recovery process discovered she still had her creativity and sense of humour. Rebecca Fox talks to Lange about her upcoming comedy show An Almighty Yes.

It has been 20 years since Emma Lange last wrote for theatre or television.

Other opportunities came along and Lange grabbed them.

Whether it was hosting radio, driving jet boats or being an alpine guide or a hunter, she was up for it.

"I’ve had an exciting life.

"I’ve always followed my curiosity ... but I always came back to radio."

Then in 2016 everything came to a halt when she was diagnosed with brain cancer — grade3 astrocytoma — and was told she did not have much time to live.

"I had a very poor prognosis."

Lange, who is from Southland originally and divides her time between Queenstown, Leigh and her hut in Haast, had been working as an overnight talkback host on radio in Auckland when she noticed something was not quite right, but it was not until she was home in Queenstown and had tests done in Dunedin that she got the diagnosis.

With radio being her "absolute love" and passion, she was scared she could lose that.

"It’s so hard to know what the outcome will be with a brain operation."

Lange underwent a craniotomy to remove the tumour — "about a quarter of my head was cancerous" — and then began the long fight back to health.

"Fortunately, it wasn’t my communication centre, which was a concern."

She realised that cancer had done her a favour in a weird way, as it had given her the opportunity to start again, to "empty the kitchen draw".

"I felt there was an entirely clean slate. My whole life prior had almost disappeared.

"It was very stressful but ultimately was exactly what I needed. I needed to get all those things gone."

During that time she started to think about what she would like to do.

"I thought ‘bugger it, I’ll write another show’. Given my brain had been quite altered, the operation was quite significant, I thought it would be a test of my brain, to see if I still have that humour, that inclination toward creativity — to see if I could find my voice again and see if I was still there, I suppose."

In the middle of her "cancer experience" at the time, she decided to use that as the starting point.

"At the time it seemed like a very fertile subject."

Lange has no qualms about talking about cancer as it is such a common thing.

"Holy moly, it is everywhere. I am the majority now. I’m far from original or unique in it."

Still making a comedy out of cancer might seem a stretch, but Lange says as a person she is very much full of joy.

"I’ve made a good career out of comedy historically and in truth I am a funny person and I’ve been infected with joy and an ability to find joy and lean toward humour. That is where I feel the greatest and best."

However, she is brutally honest about cancer.

"It is not a laugh a minute by any means. It’s as grim as hell, the worst of the worst, and I’ve been through, in other times of my life, quite challenging things, but to be told you will maybe not live long is probably the most gripping and challenging to get my head around.

"Often when you get pushed face first into complete oblivion and bleakness there is an odd thing that happens whereby it is so ridiculously awful that humour kind of appears — you think that is just ridiculous."

She admits to liking bleakness and absurdity and being drawn to odd things like that.

"It has been a hard line to walk and a hard line to find. I’m not a comedian. I’ve been written up as a comedy person but that is that latent Emma of old, and I’m still that person, but for this particular show it is definitely comedy with pathos — it is bittersweet."

About 20 years earlier she had written two solo theatre shows that she performed once but she had always wanted to tour a show.

"Let’s see if I can do that. That was my goal to write another one and if it was worth anything, take it on the road."

To recuperate, she moved to the mountains.

"I’ve always been very drawn to the scale of those enormous places where you can easily get lost. They’re very humbling — they remind you that you are just a little tiny human.

"Those sort of places are really exciting; they really stimulate me."

She was lucky to get a job managing Glenorchy Country Radio, able to continue her love in a low-stress environment in a small community .

"That was phenomenal, a true gift to me. I couldn’t have been in a better place, doing what I loved. It was really good for me.

"It allowed by brain to have time out and to start ruminating on what my show might be."

When she was ready, she took on a writing residency in Leigh and finished the show which includes music, audience participation, storytelling and Lange performing a range of outrageous characters including the Deaconess Fanny Bribery, who casts out Beelzebub while wearing comfy brogues. There is a dancing sausage and hot Donny, Lange’s inflatable boyfriend.

She then launched An Almighty Yes at Auckland’s Basement Theatre. The show is not perfect, she says, so she is ironing out the wrinkles each performance to improve it to where she is happy with it.

"It’s a really important subject and I want to do right by it."

Lange finds it hard to judge reactions to the show as she finds people are not completely honest to people when they are sick. What feedback she has had has helped her to refine and rewrite pieces.

These days her health is good.

She describes it as a chronic condition which she self manages. Lange does not think about it all the time but admits there is always an undercurrent.

"I don’t stay there. I just have to be aware of what is happening with my health.

"There’s still the possibility ... at the moment I feel good."

She attributes her good health to the neurosurgeon that treated her at Dunedin hospital.

He was also a trained ayurvedic doctor.

"He came from that ethos which is so opposite to Western medicine culture, that it is about the mind, the power of thought, that it is up to the individual. He was able to point me in the right direction — ‘yes, this prognosis is bad, but it is entirely up to you’.

"That was very important to me. It enabled me to be positive. It’s a great tonic.

"I feel truly blessed to have had him. We were so kindred. He made me feel fantastic. That made a massive difference to how I started my cancer. I was able to go into this hell, feeling upbeat — laughter is a tonic."

Lange finds herself having to reapply that positivity and remind herself it is going to be OK regardless of what is happening.

"It’s very hard to do as it is incredibly challenging, but ultimately I don’t want to live like that. I would much rather feel better about my circumstance if I can."

Part of that is spending time in places she loves like Queenstown and her hunting hut at Haast on the West Coast, which she considers to be home also.

They are also special places to her emotionally as well.

"I get quite emotional when I’ve been away. I’ve had some tremendous times in the mountains, some very spiritual times when I’ve felt very connected and alive."

Hitting the road with her show is fulfilling her goal but is also hard work.

"I tend to push a little bit hard. I’m still very much learning about what my brain is like all these years later. I do get tired and I tend to ignore that more than I should and I should rest more than I do. My biggest issue is exhaustion."

Her choice to take the show on the road on her own, even though she has had some great friends pitch in and help for nothing, has been hard.

"That is the test I set. I’m literally achieving what I set out to achieve.

"I do think I’d love to have someone else on stage with me, but tough titties."

The experience so far has been good for her.

"I’m back in a community again, it’s a totally different community and I’m finding it really exciting, I’m enjoying that. I was born with creativity and I want to honour that by writing more, performing more.

"There is something more I want to find, maybe that is doing more shows, something that fulfills me but has a purpose.

"I’m so ready."


An Almighty Yes at Dunedin Fringe March 14-16; Queenstown Te Atamira, April 19-20.

An Almighty Yes and dinner at Headwaters Eco Lodge, Glenorchy April 11, 7pm.