Intro from Jay Allison: If this piece were about blood or bones or lungs, it would have aired on NPR. But because it is about the prostate, and includes a talking penis, it presented problems for broadcast. There’s no equal time for body parts.Barrett Golding of Hearing Voices asked us if we at Transom would be interested. Yes. Cancer is cancer and it makes sense to talk about it openly and personally, wherever in the body it occurs. The piece also presents complex challenges of interest to radio producers. It is based on a stage presentation written by the patient himself, Jeff Metcalf, and performed by Paul Kiernan. It was recorded and produced for radio by the estimable Scott Carrier and Larry Massett. They are present on Transom to talk about this work, its style and content.
About The Prostate Diaries:
From Jeff Metcalf
A man walks into a doctor’s office for a physical and the doctor says, “You look good. Your heart sounds strong, lungs are clear, urine sample is clean but this next part will be a bit uncomfortable. You want to drop your pants and bend over the table so I can do a digital exam of your prostate? You might feel a slight discomfort.” And, honest to God, I start to laugh because I’m thinking why the hell would anybody stick a digital camera up my ass? All seriousness aside, in 2004 I had a physical that would change my life in ways I could not have expected. I walked out of the doctor’s office feeling very healthy. Four days later, in a phone call to the doctor, I was told my PSA levels were high, very high. Like millions of men all over the world, I had no idea what that meant. I knew this… it couldn’t be good. The doctor’s voice cracked. He suggested that I get a biopsy and talk to my wife. I asked him if I had cancer and he said that he didn’t know but the biopsy would be definitive.
I was about to leave to teach a course in creative writing in Provence, France and then attend a theater conference in Croatia. I’d do the biopsy when I returned. Until then, I’d keep quiet. This was probably one of the most stupid things I’ve done in my entire married life. And there have been many.
While I was traveling abroad, I kept a diary about my feelings. My notes were dark and angry. On my return to the states I was invited to do a reading with several other authors at a venue called City Art. I brought a short story I’d written in Provence and three days of my diary notes that I somehow felt should be read in front of an audience. I was uncertain and uncomfortable about reading from the diary. It was too revealing… too close to the bone. I almost backed out, but didn’t.
The reading changed the course of my life. A director was in the audience and commissioned me to write a full-length play for a local theater. The play ran to sold out crowds every night. A Peabody Award winning journalist asked me to make a radio play about the experience and we did. And, a four-time Emmy award winning filmmaker who was also in the audience offered to make a DVD of the reading if I was interested. His father had died of prostate cancer. This meant something to him. We made the DVD. It is wild and crazy… unrehearsed… insulting to the medical community and almost every institution we hold sacred. It became, in a sense, the framework for the play.
A play about cancer with a talking penis, my mother-in-law and Death (with beautifully capped teeth) is not the play I wanted to write. And yet… here it is doing something important. “A Slight Discomfort” is putting the second leading cause of death for men onstage and bullying it around. It has sharp edges and can cut. And my health? I’ll say this: I’m in trouble. I’m in a knife fight with this psychotic disease. It ain’t over yet and the fat lady hasn’t sung. But every once in a while I can hear her warming her vocals up. She’s got a nice voice. I am still above ground and this is good. I like it here. I pay attention. I don’t miss anything.
From Scott Carrier
I’m not a theater buff or goer. I admit that the theater experience can be perhaps the most amazing art form. I have been blown away. But I have also been in the room of failure. And I have been the object of said failure. So I don’t go, very much.
I went to see Metcalf’s play because I think he writes about living in Salt Lake City as well as anyone ever has, and I thought it might be about living in Salt Lake City. I don’t think I even knew what it was about. I may not even have known he had cancer. I’d been kind of out of the loop for a few years.
It was a premier, an experiment for Metcalf and the Salt Lake Acting Company to see what the thing looked like on stage. I arrived twenty minutes early to find the theater already full, so I went downstairs to the over-flow seating where everybody was watching it on tv, but that was full as well, so I sat in the hallway on the floor and listened. I heard it as a radio play. A story about courage. It scared the hell out of me while making me laugh and then slapped me in the face. It wasn’t about Salt Lake City at all. It was about that thing most intimate and frightening to a man, the thing I can not even mention now. Metcalf wrote about it and confessed everything to all men, and women. And in the end he still had cancer. I was blown away. I told Metcalf we should do it for the radio, and he said yes in about a second.
Where else would you hear this?
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
From Larry Massett
When Scott Carrier told me he had a 90-minute tape of some guy talking about prostate cancer I promised to listen to it right away. Meaning, when hell froze over. Never mind the topic, the trouble was the length. Even if it could be cut to an hour, the rule is nobody listens to a single piece that long.
At some point, nonetheless, I decided to trot through the first five minutes, just so I could tell Scott why it would never work. To my surprise I was still listening at ten minutes, then twenty minutes, then… good grief, an hour and a half. Without pause, without a single moment of tedium. Here was a suspenseful story brilliantly told, moving and funny. An exception to the rule.
Trimming it to a HearingVoices hour was easy. The play opens with some noodling which, I guess, works to settle down a theatre audience. Radio wants to grab you by the throat in the first few minutes before you walk away.
The real question was the music. I’d broken the story into scenes — no doubt five to eight minutes each, the usual attention span for public radio. They’d need music to separate them, but what? Since it’s all one story, the music should be all of a piece too. Barrett Golding suggested I compose music, but what sprang to mind was a CD by the Romanian band Parazitii. Lord knows how something that obscure springs to mind, but it worked; I chopped up phrases and rhythms and processed them and made new music out of them. And the music seemed to work, not just as filler but as a constant presence. So from being a theatre piece it became a sort of radio opera.
From Barrett Golding
Once Larry finished producing, and our engineer, Robin Wise, did her usual mix magic, it was time to schedule the program in the weekly Hearing Voices from NPR series. NPR trusts us not to sully the airwaves of their member stations. Never before had we run anything by them, we’d just surgically bleeped a few sensitive terms. But this hour went beyond bleepablity. Some stations run us in the early morning. I wasn’t sure they wanted their listeners waking up to a Talking Penis. So I sent the show off to NPR.
NPR legal had problems with numerous parts, both linguistic and anatomical. Were “Slight Discomfort” aired in the Supreme Court set-aside “safe-harbor” hours (after 10 p.m.), less stations would have less issues. But HV stations air us at all times. My solution was to pull the program from our weekly series, and offer it as a special via PRX, with a “Warning: Sensitive Language” — and just one bleep, over a “bullshit.” I then called the good folks at this site to see if they’d spread the word. So here we are at Transom, public radio’s home for promising but problematic pieces.