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Laughter is the best medicine

Brody Theater's Domeka Parker puts improv skills to good use fighting cancer


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Domeka Parker, a top improvisation actor and instructor, feels at home onstage at The Brody Theater. She gratefully talks about all the love and support from others during her fight with breast cancer.All through the psychological, emotional and physical trauma of dealing with advanced breast cancer, Domeka Parker has always kept one thing in mind: She really, really loves improvisation — and her improv students.

Parker missed only two or three classes through rounds of chemotherapy, which ended last week, and she even found the energy to perform in her own renowned show “Two Houses” at her beloved Brody Theater.

Improv has been her passion, ever since her father, longtime improv instructor Scott Parker, asked her to fill in for his Portland State improv team at a competition — at age 9.

“I knew as a child what the most important rule was: To say ‘yes’ to anything. Be ready for anything, and say ‘yes’ to anything,” says Parker, a performing, teaching and marketing stalwart at the Brody Theater at 16 N.W. Broadway, just off West Burnside Street. “And, to do whatever you could do to make the person you’re playing with look good and feel good.

“The rules still apply. I teach people that.”

And, she shows it. Cancer treatment? Ain’t stoppin’ her now. Outside of her own home with her three boys, or the home of boyfriend Ken Bryan (and his boy), being at the Brody Theater makes her feel safe and happy and ... home.

“I couldn’t possibly miss class,” says Parker, 36 and a lifelong Portlander. “I’m really attached to my students and the process of them learning improv. The idea of leaving them hanging for a week ... I’m kind of an interesting introvert/extrovert combination. What makes me feel good and what keeps my mind off the bad, dark things is engaging with my students and engaging with improv. For those two hours that day I’m not thinking about how bad things are. If I miss class, I don’t get that feeling. ... Improv has been integral in my life; being away from it would feel foreign to me.”

Bryan, a former actor, has marveled at her disposition. So has Brody Theater owner Tom Johnson. So has Scott Parker, who recently retired from his full-time position at Portland State.

The word that comes to mind for all three: energy.

“She’s doing an amazing job,” her father says. “Even with limited energy, when she may have only two hours of energy, she’ll go and teach classes.”

Says Johnson: “She has displayed a remarkable amount of energy and resiliency. From the beginning of being diagnosed, (improv acting/teaching) is almost part of her treatment.”

Bryan recovered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the 1990s, and his companionship has helped Parker. “It’s one of the worst breast cancers you can get, and in the months being treated, she goes to class even in incredible pain,” he says. “She’s forged through it.”

by: PHOTOS COURTESY OF DOMEKA PARKER - Domeka Parker spent time acting and teaching in Europe a few years ago, and played onstage with folks in Amsterdam.

Class clown

In a cruel twist of fate, Parker and Bryan found out about her breast cancer on Valentine’s Day — “yeah, (Ken) said next year he’s going to get me something better,” she says. Earlier in the week, she found a lump. By Friday, Feb. 14, Bryan had convinced Parker to see her nurse practitioner. After a mammogram, an ultrasound and a biopsy, it was confirmed. She had an aggressive case of invasive ductal carcinoma, and three worrisome things checked off — pre-menopausal; estrogen and progesterone positive; spread to lymph nodes under her right arm.

“It was a serious diagnosis and still is,” says Parker, who has double mastectomy surgery planned for July 10. “I’ve been trying to get them to take my breasts off since I found out. I wake up in the morning and wonder why they’re still here. The kids are pissed they are there. Everybody’s mad. (Doctors/nurses) told me that’s just the way they do it; the best way for them to tell if chemo is effective is leave the cancer in to see if it’s working.”

Parker says there’s a 40 percent chance that cancer could return. She wants to lessen the chances with the double mastectomy, as “I’m not caught up in appearances. I am caught up in being healthy for my kids and not having to do this again.”

She adds: “It’s been a roller-coaster emotionally. I am very weak, and I run out of energy quickly. So, I have to manage my time really well, so I have energy to perform when it’s time to perform. But there are days that are really dark and gloomy.”

Improv makes her happy. And she has become one of Portland’s best at doing it. She has performed all over town, and in recent years performed and taught in several European cities. Johnson is quite happy that she will be able to attend the Seattle International Improv Festival, June 22 through 29, with him. She’ll also do some instruction at Fort Hays State University in Kansas in September.

“She has unflagging energy on and off stage,” Johnson says. “Her personality is very energetic, positive and forward-looking — great assets for an improviser. She loves to collaborate and create with other people. She’s very quick-witted.”

“Domeka is one of the most dynamic performers,” Bryan says. “She has an incredible intellect, which feeds her humor. She just has a great sense for her audience, and where to take it.

“She has incredible range; she can do the dramatic to the goofball Monty Python-esque comedy.”

“She does it with great passion,” Scott Parker says. Her father and mother, Victoria Pohl, both teach theater at Portland State. So, clearly it’s in her blood.

Parker said she was kicked out of Lincoln High as a sophomore back in the 1990s — but later earned a high school and a college degree — for just being herself. “Class clown,” she says. “They said I was a distraction.” In truth, her Lincoln High classmates could have simply been her audience.

Friends, family, fellow theater folks, and many others have rallied to Parker’s side in the wake of the cancer diagnosis and through treatment. She smiles and laughs when reciting the name of the Facebook page where people have shown support: “Breast Cancer Support Group Ever.”

She has used her skills and humor as an improvisation artist to help her through cancer. In a line at a grocery store, she started a game of telephone to see what would happen just for kicks and giggles.

“I have to make light of cancer,” she says. “It’s the only way, for me personally, to be successful through cancer and be a survivor through cancer is to play with the idea of it, and use comedy as a way to look at the things that are hardest about it.”