Minnesota actor works on play script during cancer treatment
By ALYSSA ZACZEK
Dec. 16, 2017
ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — From his room in St. Cloud Hospital, Raine Hokan is retaining his sense of humor.
"I sit in a room and crack myself up with my own jokes," he told the St. Cloud Times . "The nurses think I'm crazy."
It doesn't matter that he won't be able to perform in "Laughing All the Way VIII: If the Fates Allow," a bespoke holiday show that he helped write. It's important to Hokan to keep his wit sharpened.
In the 100 hours a week he spends getting near-constant chemotherapy treatments for his recently discovered colon cancer, Hokan keeps busy. He reads drafts of "Laughing All the Way," writing and re-writing new plot lines and jokes. He plays Super Mario Odyssey on his Nintendo Switch and hangs out with a therapy dog named Taco, who's also known as Burrito because of his size.
He has also lost his hair, gained 10 pounds and grappled with flu-like symptoms from his post-treatment medications.
But Hokan is insistent on keeping his spirits bright. After all, it is the Christmas season, and as theater folk like Hokan often say, the show must go on.
The show — "Laughing All the Way" — is staged annually by Pioneer Place Theatre Company. It features holly-jolly holiday hijinks smashed up with "a flashback to the old Dean Martin, Perry Como Christmas shows," according to theatre company executive director Dan Barth, who also performs and writes for the show.
"This is going to be the eighth episode of 'Laughing All the Way,'" Barth said. "It has evolved over the years, so it still has the same host and the same cast of characters, but every year there's a new theme and situation happening to them."
Among that cast of characters is Paddy O'Hanahan, a theater director usually played by Hokan. O'Hanahan, as with all the characters in the play, is an original creation dreamed up by a four-person writing team: Barth, Hokan, PPTC artistic director Jay Terry, and Heather Mastromarco, who joined the team in 2015.
But Hokan's cancer diagnosis put him and his fictional counterpart's involvement in this year's show at risk.
In late September, the St. Cloud writer, actor and director was hospitalized after a frightening episode.
"The oddest thing happened; I started hemorrhaging," Hokan said. After a bout of inexplicable bleeding for 36 hours, Hokan collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, where he learned that he had lost nearly half the blood in his body.
"Interesting note: They never found out where the bleeding was coming from," he said.
But the trip to the emergency room elicited a discovery Hokan never expected: cancer.
"When they did all the tests to try and find what was causing the bleeding, they found the colon cancer," Hokan said. "They also saw spots near my lung and hip bone, so they were concerned I might be riddled with it."
Hokan waited an agonizing two weeks before doctors could put his mind at ease. The cancer was confined to his colon, and his prognosis was "really good."
He had little time to process his diagnosis. On Oct. 24, Hokan began an aggressive chemotherapy treatment plan. He is subjected to inpatient chemo at St. Cloud Hospital for a week at a time, followed by a break of several weeks. Then the cycle repeats until the cancer is eradicated, which Hokan expects will occur no later than March.
"Chemo is the standardized global procedure for dealing with this version of (colon cancer)," Hokan said. "I'm responding to the treatments as good as anyone (the doctors) have seen."
But chemotherapy has side effects, and, in this case, one of the worst is something that can't be treated in a hospital: Because of chemo's weakening effects on the immune system, Hokan cannot physically participate in "Laughing All the Way."
"That was one of the biggest sucker punches," he said. "I found out I just wouldn't be able to breathe all that air while doing chemo."
It was time to get creative. And who better to do so than a team of theater professionals?
"When we found out that (Hokan) had cancer and needed to go through treatment, he rewrote the script himself," Barth said. "He kind of wrote himself out, and added in a new character."
Hokan played script doctor while being tended to by doctors of a very different kind. He said the hospital environment is, if nothing else, conducive to deep focus.
"It has been great forced writing time, as I have absolutely nothing else to do," he laughed. "Dan has been running lines with me in the room, which has been very helpful to the process."
Aside from reworking the entire script, Hokan has also found a way to help direct the show through the miracle of modern technology: FaceTime.
"He's been at every rehearsal, from the hospital," Barth said. "So he's very much a part of the cast and crew, and is directing (the show), but he is doing it a little more uniquely this year."
Hokan dials in to rehearsals as often as possible, to be a guiding presence to both the staging and the script. For this year's "Laughing All the Way," Hokan said he wrote the core story that runs throughout the two-act show, tying every element together like a bow on a Christmas gift.
It was for that reason that being "in the room," so to speak, was important to him.
"You want to be able to hear it," Hokan said of his writing. "We had our first read-through . and it was awesome to hear different responses. There are jokes that you personally think are hilarious that get nothing, crickets, and then there are things you didn't think would land that absolutely do. That's been fantastic, to hear it."
Still, Hokan's love of performing would not be held back by the confines of his illness.
"I decided that I had to find a way to be in (the show)," he said. Without spoiling the surprise, rest assured that Hokan's presence lives on in "Laughing All the Way VIII," whether he can appear onstage or not.
And, like a warm-hearted ghost of Christmases past, present and future, Hokan said he will spend at least one night of the show's run watching over the cast and crew from the sound and light booth, a location made somewhat safer for his immune system by its relative separation from the audience.
His situation is not quite the hilarious holiday scene Hokan and his castmates originally envisioned for this year's show — but Hokan is laughing with them all the same.
Information from: St. Cloud Times, http://www.sctimes.com