Saving Tania's Privates: Tania Katan May Be America's Foremost Jewish Lesbian Breast Cancer Survivor
Tania Katan is talking about her chest. Again.
"Not having boobies is not who I am," she's saying. "It's an opportunity for me to say something about being human. Yeah, I'm telling a story about surviving breast cancer, and having had girlfriend trouble, and being part of a crazy family. But in the end, it's not a story about just any one of those things. It's about just — I don't know — living."
Katan has been living and reliving her victory over breast cancer for decades now — first, of course, in real life, where it was played out as a confusing tragedy about which an imagined Greek chorus kept calling out, "She's so young!" Later, she re-created this trauma in a locally produced play that described that first diagnosis and mastectomy at age 21. Later, she revisited the subject in a memoir, My One Night Stand with Cancer, published in 2005 and detailing her second battle with cancer and subsequent second mastectomy, an operation that left her, as she likes to say, "like the gecko on the Geico commercials — streamlined and cute."
It's hard for Katan not to be cute — it's a big part of her shtick. She's the funny gal who vamps on being a Jewish lesbian cancer survivor. Every interaction — a chance meeting in a diner, a public speaking engagement, a phone interview from Seattle, where she's in rehearsal for her new play, Saving Tania's Privates, which opens here this week — plays like a stand-up routine.
"We're rehearsing in Seattle because it's where my dream team is headquartered," she tells me, referring to Saving's director and the technical crew who are working on the show. Katan likes having a "dream team," one that's "headquartered." She appears happiest when she is a nexus, and one wonders if attention isn't her main goal. When she isn't writing, she performs stand-up in L.A. and teaches at ASU — itself a form of stand-up comedy. She confesses, at one point during our conversation, that she looks forward to one day being "hugely famous, so that I can really get some things said."
Katan has already said plenty in her various autobiographies, but it's the conversation going on behind her stories about the horrors of cancer or dating or being, as she puts it, "a 21-year-old pussy-licker" that are always the most interesting.
I first met Katan in one of those weekend Honors English classes one must jump through fiery hoops to be accepted into. She was neither the teacher nor a student in the class, but had shown up one day simply to hang out. I wanted to hate her for crashing uninvited into a class that the rest of us practically had to fellate our way into, but hating Katan proved impossible. She sat down next to me and began a conversation about my shoes, and before long, I knew more about her than I cared to and was utterly captivated in spite of myself.
"You gave me the worst review of my life about three months after that," Katan likes to remind me, referring to a hastily assembled Christmas pageant she authored later that year. She mentions this whenever I see her, which usually happens when she's promoting her latest one-woman show. This new one has already played in Seattle, Philadelphia, and the prestigious Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it killed. After its Phoenix production, Saving Tania's Privates will head to New York, where Katan will perform the play Off-Off-Broadway.
This time out, her story is more fully realized than in previous incarnations. Though the characters and the situations are essentially the same, Saving does more than update or expand on Katan's story, which more recently has included further medical complications "down below," as she describes later surgeries that kept her cancer-free. Creating all-new material meant revisiting her story from a wider angle, one that Katan says allowed her to report on her life with truer versions of the people in it.
"When I'm talking about my family in my stand-up act," she says, "I might be doing a caricature of my mom in order to tell a more universal mom joke. In the book, I was writing about my experience of my mom during a stressful time in my life. In the play, though, I'm using what I've learned as an actor to create a three-dimensional version of my mother. I've given her a backstory and some real substance."
Katan pauses. "I am a trained actor, you know."
I know. And a playwright, and a stand-up comic, and a fiction writer. She is also — and this is one of those conversations one must strain to hear beneath Katan's rat-a-tat comic delivery — a proponent of cancer survivors. She might be riffing about candy, but there's substance in there, if you know where to listen.
"Those pink M&M's!" she hollered over the phone the other day from Seattle. "Everyone knows that sugar exacerbates cancer cells. But the message they're giving us is, 'Buy pink candy and you're fighting cancer!'"
There's the briefest pause, and I can practically hear the twinkle in Katan's eyes as she shifts into Funny Lesbian Breast-less Cancer Girl mode. "I just want to call the M&M people and say to them, 'This is Tania Katan. Fuck you!'"
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