Memorizing lines to remember her life

An actress deals with memory loss after surgery to remove a brain tumor

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

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David S. Spence⁄The Gazette
Thirteen years ago, Caris Corfman, 51, lost her ability to make new memories when she had a brain tumor removed. Yet the actress, who had built a career over 15 years with roles on Broadway, off-Broadway and in local theater, has continued to perform in a role more personal than ever – a story of her life.

For a woman who cannot remember anything new, Caris Corfman has an impeccable memory.

She remembers growing up in Bethesda, attending Walter Johnson High School and wanting to be a dancer and an actor.

She remembers her first Broadway experience — ‘‘a dream” — performing alongside Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen straight out of graduate school.

She remembers the pain of unbearable headaches that later turned out to be a brain tumor.

Corfman easily recalls the productions she has acted in, the names of fellow actors and even the lines from monologues she has performed. Yet she cannot remember meeting new people five minutes after introducing herself and she cannot remember the beginning of a conversation when the topic changes.

Thirteen years ago, Corfman, 51, lost her short-term memory as a result of having her tumor removed. The actress who had played roles in films, on television, on Broadway, off Broadway and in local theater could no longer memorize her lines.

‘‘I didn’t know what to do with my life,” Corfman said, startlingly aware of her disability. ‘‘I couldn’t remember anything so my career was gone.”

Still, she felt the itch of the stage.

With help from childhood friend Brad Watkins, who is now producing director at the Olney Theatre Center, Corfman has continued to perform in a play about her life. Last weekend, she presented her show in Philadelphia at the First Person Festival.

When Corfman began to emerge from the cloudiness of her operations, Watkins said, she bugged ‘‘everyone who would listen” about getting back on a stage.

‘‘Because she lacks short-term memory and because she had been so altered by this trauma her body had gone through, we all sort of placated and pooh-poohed her for some time and would change the subject rather quickly,” he said.

Eventually, Watkins encouraged her to write, telling Corfman, ‘‘If you really want to do a show, go ahead and write it.”

Her resulting stories impressed Watkins.

‘‘She still had all the instincts of an actress,” he said. ‘‘She was still able to create and communicate character and dramatic situations and complex emotional ideas.”

Watkins worked with Mark Berman, a playwright that Corfman had known from college, to develop the play that became ‘‘Caris’ Peace.”

The one-hour show was a collage of Corfman’s experiences — as a child, as an actress, as a person without short-term memory — and included her writings as well as excerpts from past performances.

‘‘My job really became to come up with the context of the piece and interweave all of the theatrical pieces to make it sort of sensible and have structure to it,” Watkins said.

Corfman performs with the help of about a dozen cues, including lights, music and color-coded, numbered index cards.

‘‘Inside the cards are commands like, ‘Get the wine bottle now,’ so she knows to get the wine bottle,” Watkins said.

In her performance, Corfman reads from her cards and shares life experiences with raw emotion told through poetic rhythm and rhyme.

‘‘Why?” she says at one point. ‘‘That little itty bitty question — what had happened to my head — sometimes, occasionally, made me wish that I was dead.”

During a musical interlude, Corfman bobs her head to the music and sashays across the stage, moving her arms fluidly around her, only to stop and pause uncomfortably.

‘‘I have to go to my script,” she says, walking back to the music stand where she left her index cards.

Corfman forgets that she has performed sections. She also does not know that there is a show on the day that she is scheduled to perform. If the material is rehearsed too much, she thinks she has already performed it and stops in the middle.

In a show last weekend, she skipped sections without knowing it.

However, ‘‘she’s such a fine artist that she will just massage her way into the next thing and make it seem seamless,” Watkins said. ‘‘No one in the audience knew she missed anything.”

What is most compelling about the show, Watkins said, is to see that her artistry is alive and intact.

‘‘To have her be able to enter the arena and still become a great actress is really quite an inspiring thing,” he said.

Working on the show has also helped Corfman with healing, Watkins said.

‘‘She has physically improved so much since she was able to resume doing a vocation which she loved,” he said. ‘‘Even though we’ve only done the show four or five times over the past two years, it has given her a sense of purpose and a sense of anticipation and interest in life that has really cleared up a lot of her depression and has really changed her physiognomy.”

Beginning in 1993, Corfman underwent four surgeries to remove her tumor, altering more than her memories.

Corfman gained 100 pounds, lost her sense of thirst, became diabetic and lost function in her pituitary gland. She takes a dozen medications daily and has to consciously drink plenty of water as a result.

For four years, Corfman has lived by herself in a Rockville apartment with daily assistance from a companion with the state’s Head Injury Rehabilitation and Referral Services program.

In addition to rehearsing her play and keeping up with doctor’s appointments, Corfman swims and dances on occasion, goes to lunches and movies with her father and spends time with her cat named Lucky.

Although she expresses frustration at her life’s turn of events, Corfman also acknowledges that she is fortunate to have supportive family and friends.

There are currently no future shows scheduled for ‘‘Caris’ Peace,” but a friend is featuring Corfman in a documentary that is in the works.

Corfman said part of what drives her now is to show people ‘‘if I can do this, other people can do it too.”

‘‘If everybody knew everyone else’s story, I think we’d get along better,” she said, noting — remembering — that she says this in her play. ‘‘Everyone’s got their story. Everyone’s got their pain.”

Corfman forgets to take her medicine and drink enough water, yet she knows she is working on a show with Watkins and she recalls elements of her play.

It’s a ‘‘genuine crapshoot” what is remembered and what is lost, Watkins said.

When asked about how far back her recent memory goes, Corfman answered, ‘‘I don’t know because I can’t remember.”

She, too, would like to know why her memory works as it does.

‘‘Why do I remember some things and others are lost?” Corfman said.