Q&A with actress Stellie Siteman


Local actress, singer and comedian Stellie Siteman is appearing in a new musical that has a unique association with her last name. Unbeatable is the story of a woman diagnosed with stage-three breast cancer, based on a true story. The Siteman Cancer Center, named for Stellie Siteman’s father, is helping promote the musical, as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Siteman plays the mother of the woman diagnosed with cancer, a feisty, efficient businesswoman who tackles this battle with a heavy dose of humor. Just before Unbeatable opened Thursday, Oct. 15 at the Westport Playhouse, the Jewish Light spoke with Stellie Siteman.

When I first heard about this production, I thought ‘a musical comedy about breast cancer?’ What was your reaction to that?

Anybody who thinks that breast cancer is no laughing matter hasn’t met Laurie Frey. She is the author of the book Unbeatable and this play is based on her experiences when she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. She’s got a tremendous sense of humor and that is really in the play. She conceived it with Michael Barnard, who also directed the play, and Eric Cobel wrote the book, so when you go to see it you will understand, there is a great deal of humor and optimism in this work.

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How has the theme of the show affected you?

For a while, my philosophy was that ‘things are always darkest just before they go pitch black,’ and being cynical. And this show has reinforced for me that, when nothing is sure, everything is possible.

Getting involved in this show has almost been like a gift. It has been a wake-up call, because cynicism isn’t realistic. It’s tough but it is kind of unrealistic and cowardly, because it means you don’t really have to try. And this show is really about the stark realization that at any moment you could get a diagnosis that could change your life and it sends that clear message to “live your life every day, with humor and hope, optimism, spirit.” The message of this play is universal, it applies for everybody who goes through life at full-speed, to ‘stop and smell the roses.’

What is the Siteman Cancer Center’s involvement?

The Siteman Cancer Center is a partner. I don’t believe financially they have anything to do with the show, or in producing it. Siteman has certainly been cooperative in getting the message out. We had a week of performances for survivors and their loved ones, which was sponsored by Siteman, and free. So they fully endorsed it.

How was the play received during “Survivors Week?”

The reactions have been just overwhelmingly positive. It is a real roller coaster ride of a show but then cancer is a roller coaster. There are good days and bad days, and this show really takes you on that roller coaster ride.

Breast cancer in particular is a concern in the Jewish community because of the genetic contribution in some families of Ashkenazi descent. How do you see this play fitting in with breast cancer awareness in the Jewish community, and the topic of testing and genetics?

The lead character in the play waits a year to get this lump in her breast taken out, because she is a Type A personality, because she doesn’t take the time to do it. So you’ve got to pay attention to the warning signs — you’ve got to go for the mammogram. I firmly believe that.

Has breast cancer touched your family?

My maternal grandmother. She had a mastectomy, but it re-occurred and she died of it. So, yeah, there has been cancer in my family.

Appropriately, this play is debuting in Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

During Survivors Week, they were passing out a lot of brochures and information about warning signs, information from Siteman (Cancer Center), and that’s been good. But ultimately, the book Unbeatable and the musical are all about help, and Laurie (Frey) is cancer-free at the moment and wants to make everyone aware you need to get the annual check-ups.

The play is scheduled for a five-week run here. If it moves on, will you travel with it?

I don’t know. We’re hoping we get good houses in the next five weeks. We have six performances a week, running Wednesdays through Sundays. I think it is a very important show. I think it’s smart, it’s engaging, it’s thought provoking and very funny. It does everything live theater should do.