Last month, on the Saturday before tax day, longtime local actors Amy Thone and Hans Altwies went to the emergency room with Stella, their 13-year-old daughter. “We walked in thinking Stella just had a really, really annoying sinus infection,” Thone said.
It wasn’t a sinus infection.
“The first person we saw, with almost an intuitive diagnosis, said ‘I think you guys are going to be spending the night,’ ” Thone recalled. One of Stella’s eyes was just beginning to bulge slightly, but the family thought it was sinus inflammation. “It was proptosis,” Thone said. “The tumor was beginning to dislocate her eyeball.”
Stella was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare, soft-tissue cancer. “A week before her diagnosis, she was playing ultimate and going to violin concerts,” Thone said. “And the next thing is the doctor saying: ‘Your child is probably not going to live out the year.'”
The current plan, Thone said, is a year’s worth of intensive treatment (chemotherapy now, then radiation, then surgery if the tumor shrinks enough to cut some of it out) followed by a year’s worth of recovery and rehabilitation. “It’s so surreal,” Thone said. “The stupid, true thing is that you realize nothing is guaranteed. Nothing.”
But, she said, the theater community, which they have been part of for years, has rallied around them, bringing food, helping with household chores, and navigating the bureaucratic work of health insurance and case management. On Wednesday, they’re going to do what theater people do best — put on a show. Actor Sarah Rudinoff will host Songs for Stella, a benefit concert with musicians from around the theater scene: the Victor Janusz Band, Off the Hook with Miss Mamie Lavona, the Klein Party featuring Eric Ray Anderson, the Julia Francis Band, and others. So far, they have raised roughly $79,000 of the $100,000 goal.
The family has health insurance through Thone’s teaching work at the University of Washington, but the couple has had to put the brakes on all their usual projects, including Thone’s acting work and Altwies’ small business LCM Builders, which largely hires young carpenter/artists to build and remodel homes.
Between them, Thone and Altwies have performed on almost every major stage in Seattle, often multiple times (Seattle Repertory Theatre, New Century Theatre Company, Strawberry Theatre Workshop, Intiman Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare Company, Book-It Repertory Theatre, others) and have become firmly embedded in Seattle’s theater network.
“It is deeply and profoundly moving to feel buoyed in this nightmare storm,” Thone said. “The amount of love is insane: cards, flowers, people I don’t even know saying ‘I’ll come give you a massage’ or ‘can I mow your lawn?’ Somebody heard us mention we mix coconut water with Stella’s food bag — she has a feeding tube, so carries her food with her — and suddenly there’s a giant crate of coconut water on our porch.”
In the meantime, Thone said, they’re spending as much time with their daughter as possible, monitoring medication, taking her back and forth from Seattle Children’s hospital, and general care taking. “There isn’t a ‘normal’ week,” Thone said. “There are days she’s totally withdrawn, nonresponsive except for the fact that she’s in so much pain. Chemo attacks fast-growing cells, and your whole gastrointestinal tract, from mouth to ass, is fast-growing cells. But today she’s whistling and doing a crossword puzzle. Some days she can’t walk to the corner, but the other day she wanted to go to the Columbia City Farmer’s Market, so we went and sat there in the rain. It was actually quite nice.”
People who cannot attend Songs for Stella but want to pitch in can go to Stella for Star at gofundme.com.
“I feel unbelievably, horribly lucky to have health insurance through UW,” Thone said. “Thank God, thank God, thank God. I can’t even begin to fathom the finances for this now, but to hit this with no insurance? I can’t imagine.”
Thone is a Shakespeare specialist, and said most plays she’s been attracted to over the years have been about unbearable moments, unbearable things.
“It’s your job as an actor to feel it and then come back because it’s pretend,” she said. “But this is so horribly not pretend. I keep thinking, ‘Oh my God, please let me wake up.’ But if our kid makes it through, she’s going to be amazing — she’ll have so much empathy, compassion, strength, and she’ll find all kinds of things inside herself she didn’t know she had.”
Songs for Stella, 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 22; The Royal Room, 5000 Rainier Ave S., Seattle; $25 ($10 for 18 and under); 800-838-3006, stellasongs.brownpapertickets.com