Astoria writer finds humor in an unlikely profession

Astoria writer finds humor in an unlikely profession
By Kevin Zimmerman

Taren Sterry realizes whenever she is asked, “what do you do?”, her answer is not really an ice breaker as much as a Titanic sinker.

The Astoria resident works for Visiting Nurse Services of New York, where she trains volunteers for its hospice and palliative care program.

“It can be a cocktail party killer,” Sterry said. “Death is the final taboo. We are all terrified of it and avoid it by being younger, faster, blonder and richer to avoid loss.”

But Sterry doesn’t avoid the subject. She talks about it often and to as many people as she can.

Her full-time career at VNSNY has even led to a part-time gig as a creative writer and performer, who focuses on the subject of hospice.

For the past six years, Sterry, working with theater director Cheryl King, has shaped her work stories and academic research into an hour-long monologue titled “180 Days,” which she performs for hospice groups around the country. The piece examines the six months she spent as a hospice volunteer while an undergraduate at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Recently, she brought the show home with a production at Stage Left Studio in Chelsea.

On a dark stage with only a wooden chair and black box to serve as the set, Sterry portrays more than a dozen characters, including her grandmother, college friends, hospice nurses and terminally ill patients. Through her actions and words, Sterry turns the tiny stage into a dorm room, pickup truck, Walmart shipping dock and a well-appointed suburban parlor doubling as a sick room.

As the stage lights come up, Sterry, dressed in jeans and a black shirt, tells the audience how she went from a 20-something university student looking for a work-study project that would help her change the world to someone with a master’s degree in thanatology — the study of death.

“At U.C. Santa Cruz, we had to get out of the classroom and into the world to make it better,” Sterry said as a younger version of herself. “And what better way to spend your tuition money than learning the meaning of life?”

Sterry decided to head to her grandparents’ farm in South Dakota and volunteer at a nearby hospice program.

“When someone is in hospice, they are expected to die within six months,” Sterry said.

What unfolds over the next 60 minutes is naturally twinged with sadness and a sense of loss but also full of unexpected and genuine humor.

The audience meets Jenny, 46, who is in the advanced stages of breast cancer and not ready to die. Then there’s Amy, dying of lung cancer and, in between puffs from her cigarette, imploring Sterry not to smoke. Sadie suffers from dementia. Alfred has advanced-stage diabetes and a panache for telling groan-inducing jokes. And there’s also Don with congenital heart disease who still sees himself as a vibrant and strapping man despite the ravishing his body has suffered.

As Sterry spends more time with the hospice patients, she also struggles with the unexpected weight gain she experiences on a steady Midwestern diet of “meat, potatoes and more meat.” She also discovers a lot about herself and what she is capable of, including swallowing her pride and taking a job at Walmart when funds started to run low. For Sterry, the biggest surprise about that job was she loved it.

All of the stories in “180 Days” are true, Sterry said, only the names have been changed.

Although she moved to New York for graduate school, Sterry believes subconsciously she must have realized this was the place to fulfill her dreams of being a writer and performer, even though it seemed like a happy accident.

She was heading home from work about six years ago when she passed a small theater advertising classes for improvisation and solo performing training.

It clicked that this would be a way to tell her story as well as those of her hospice clients.

The monologue also provided Sterry with a chance to honor her grandfather, who died when she was 15, and openly talked to her about his pending death.

“My grandfather was able to tell me he was dying,” Sterry said. “This was a God-fearing man, who was still so open with his grandchild. It’s a privilege to be able to share this.”

Sterry understands a lot of people are not ready for her show and cringe when other audience members laugh at the humor she is able to mine from an unfunny subject.

But she hopes theatergoers keep an open mind and come without a lot of expectations.

“I want them to leave feeling they have been entertained,” Sterry said. “And I hope they enjoy it and maybe even learn a little.”

For more information on Taren Sterry’s “180 Days,” visit 180daysplay.com.

News editor Kevin Zimmerman can be reached at 718-260-4541 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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