Play Explores Tangling 
with Our 'Dinosaur'
Photo by Howard Zehr
April 19, 2012 - Staunton News Leader
By Katie Cathey

Who doesn't find cancer scary? Living with it? Few can even imagine. This play (a true story) "Sarah and the Dinosaur" is decidedly not scary: Indeed it tackles a common theme, and that is the "something" — the "dinosaur" if you will — that we attempt to avoid, hide from, deny but is always with us. As playwright Ingrid De Sanctis so eloquently puts it, "The theme is universal in that we all have something deep within us — it might be abuse, addiction, illness, .... something we don't want to face." (Read More)

‘So Much Fire’
‘Sarah & The Dinosaur’ 
To Grace Lee Eshleman Stage
Photo by Michael Reilly/DN-R
March 13, 2012 - Daily News Record
By Samantha Cole

It can come lumbering and crashing in from nowhere, or sneak quietly into a life to turn everything upside-down.

Cancer arrives in a multitude of forms. In “Sarah & the Dinosaur,” a young woman confronts the monster of Ocular Melanoma head-on.

Based on the story of Sarah Pharis of Staunton, the play follows a young woman’s journey in choosing life while facing death. Performances will be staged at Eastern Mennonite University’s Lee Eshleman Studio on March 14-17 at 7:30 p.m. and at 3 p.m. on March 18.

Telling The Story

In essence, theater is a series of handoffs, says director Ingrid DeSanctis: A story goes from the subject to the director, who then hands it to the actors. Eventually, the story makes its way to the stage where audience members can receive it.

Pharis gave DeSanctis creative control of her story, acting as consultant and muse for the cast during readings and rehearsals. “At times, it was hard to think that she actually was dealing with cancer because she had so much fire in her,” said Sarah Gant, playing the role of Sarah.

Although her story and spirit are inspiring, the play isn’t meant to be a biographical account. “It’s not a docu-drama, where it’s accurate, accurate, accurate about her,” said DeSanctis.

She asked herself, “If I created my cancer, what would it be? The director’s “weird mind” went to Pharis’ former life as a schoolteacher, where she would have taught her class about dinosaurs. The prehistoric beast, she decided, would make a fitting symbol.

“So, when I started to get ideas that were completely my own path, I felt free, and Sarah gave me permission to do whatever I wanted,” she said.

DeSanctis does, however, use Pharis’ blog entries in points throughout the play, incorporated word-for-word into the script. “Otherwise, we butchered ‘em,” she said.

“And really, in some ways, [Pharis] was an advocate for that butchering,” added Kirsten Beachy, who plays the dinosaur.

Pharis insists on upholding her end of the handoff, said DeSanctis. “She fights for me not to use her blogs … her words.”

Far From Barney

As Beachy and her director briefly trade blocking and posturing notes, they paint an eerie picture of the dinosaur.

“Isn’t it different than what you thought?” said DeSanctis.

“Yeah … yeah!” Beachy nearly whispered. “Oh, I am not Barney.”

“It’s got a creepiness to it,” DeSanctis remarked.

She didn’t volunteer for the role, but after Beachy stood in for a reading, others involved came to DeSanctis with pleas that the unassuming EMU language and literature professor perform the part.

Whereas typical characters have a clear story arc, Beachy said this role is unique in its lack of a goal: “The dinosaur is just there.” But it does have a personality.

“[The dinosaur] falls in love with Sarah as the play progresses,” she continued. “I’m still discovering things about how that works.”

“It messes with your head,” DeSanctis said. “It’s cancer, and it’s this idea that cancer never leaves once it’s there … there’s a point where you have to decide you’re going to live with it, face it, deal with it.”

Laugh Lines

Gant says she’s had to be careful not to allow the dinosaur to follow her home; working in the weighty role of Sarah, she describes a “delicate balance” of empathy in acting.

The 2010 EMU alumna was contacted by DeSanctis for the role of Sarah in January, but first heard talk of a production about two years ago. “Ingrid kept telling me of her strong-willed friend who was fighting cancer,” she recalls.

“The thought of someone so young battling with something so vicious is a lot for my brain to wrap around,” said Gant.

DeSanctis attests to Gant’s commitment to the role. “I think it’s been a marathon for her as an actress. I think it’s been an incredible journey for her.”

But, even in a tragic story, Gant said there is levity to be found: “It’s easy to think of cancer and immediately become melancholy, but there are also a lot of comedic things that can happen as well.”

DeSanctis said she sometimes finds herself laughing enough to forget the play’s seriousness. “There’s a real sweet tenderness to the show. It’s funnier than you think, incredibly funny and wacky,” she said. “But that’s what happens when your life is turned upside-down by this ridiculous cancer.”

Future Goals, Take-Away

Those involved hope that the play continues to live on long after the curtain closes at EMU: Currently, it is scheduled for another performance in Staunton on April 26-28.

They hope to introduce the production to cancer conferences and hospitals in the future.

For now, DeSanctis and the cast are looking forward to sharing with the community a production that’s taken “the goodness of people” to support financially, emotionally and artistically, she said.

“The sucky thing is, cancer is not resolved,” she said. “We spend so much time searching for cancer … So much of our life-energy every year is spent searching for cancer.”

And, on a wider scale, we search for our own scaly vulnerabilities. Beachy said, in an early rehearsal session, she wrote DeSanctis’ words on her script: “We all have a dinosaur. … What is your dinosaur?”

Fresh 96.1 Interview with Jeff & Jess

Cancer Cowboys
From Stranger To Friend
Man Inspired To Action By Area Woman's Story
Photo by Justin Falls/ DN-R - Click HERE to view more photos from the dinner. 

February 8, 2012 - Daily News Record 

HARRISONBURG - Nine plastic cups shot into the air at Tutti Gusti on Monday as friends cheered the arrival of "chef" Sarah Pharis' piece de resis­tance - cherry soup.  

Pharis' dinner guests didn't know exactly what to expect, but were quick to sing the praises of the sweet, but­tery burgundy liquid dotted with cherries.

For Pharis, 32, of Staunton, mixing up the soup with the help of Tutti Gusti owner Fortunato Merone marked a special occasion. It was one of the first times she could draw a line through one of the items on her "35 things to do before my 35th birthday" list.

"I read about [the soup] in a book and it sounded really romantic and I said that I wanted to have it someday," said Pharis, decked out in a full chef's outfit as she shoveled tomatoes on trays of bruschetta at the eatery off of Port Republic Road. "[The list] is things that terrify me that I'd always said I wanted to do."

Reading the rest of Pharis' list, dis­played on her blog [Love X Infinity}2, one would be right to assume she quite likes romantic ideas.

"Take a chocolate bath, sleep in a castle, learn to walk the tightrope, ride an elephant, live on an island for a month," part of the list reads.

Other items are proof of her uniqueness and good humor: "participate in an act of guerilla gardening, grow Daryl Hannah mermaid hair, pull a world class practical joke, write a really kick [butt] punk rock song and perform it."

And one item on the list reminds readers of the importance of the cherry soup, Monday's soiree, and the list in the first place: "Live to be 35."

This Saturday will mark two years to the day that the 32-year-old was given six months to live due to her ocular melanoma spreading to her liver, which is when the rare eye cancer is considered terminal.

It's easy to see that much like her list she is not what one could call ordinary.

On Monday, in the back of Tutti Gusti, friends old and new gathered to celebrate the one and only Sarah Pharis and give her some of the inspiration they say she's given to others.

Like Old Friends
Butch Strawderman, a commercial Realtor with Cottonwood Commercial, is one of those inspired by the former Eastern Mennonite University student's vigor for living life to the fullest, despite her Stage 4 terminal cancer.

The two were joking and laughing like old friends Monday, despite the dinner party being their first encounter.

"We just hit it right off," said Strawderman, who said Pharis was even "more vibrant" in person than he imagined. "She walked in and I knew her right away. . She took to the kitchen like a duck on water."

Monday's dinner at Tutti Gusti was arranged by Strawderman, who was compelled to do something for Pharis after reading of her "awe-inspiring" story.

Strawderman's "something" was calling friends and acquaintances to make items on Pharis' wish list become a reality. So far, he's found ways to fulfill 17 items on her list, including two she knocked out Monday: making her own pasta and cherry soup.

At the end of the dinner, Strawderman, with help from former Harrisonburg Mayor Rodney Eagle, announced the rest of the 17 items, much to Pharis' surprise.

Eagle offered up a stay at his house in Myrtle Beach so Pharis could send a message in a bottle; a waiter at Tutti Gusti offered to let Pharis record a punk rock song with his band; Camp Horizons in Harrisonburg is going to allow Pharis to host a charity event, build something and can food.

Harrisonburg dentist Robert Detrich is going to give Pharis and friends a ride in a hot-air balloon.

"It's funny how this all fell into place," Strawderman said. "This is just a tremendous effort by the entire community to fulfill this young lady's dreams. It just kept snowballing, people said, 'What can I do? How can I help?'" 

As he began to unveil the surprises, Pharis leaned on her hand with her mouth slightly parted. 

"I'm grateful and shocked and humbled," said Pharis, who has already come up with her own alias for the stranger-turned-friend. "You were a total stranger tonight, but now you're my cancer cowboy, that's what I'm going to call you."

A play about Sarah Pharis, Sarah & The Dinosaur, will debut at Eastern Mennonite University's Lee Eshleman Studio Theater March 14-18. On April 26 through April 28, the play will come to ShenanArts at the nTelos Theatre in Staunton.

Check for updated information about tickets or to donate to the project.

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or

 "The Spark" Interviews

Martha Woodroof from NPR's WMRA was gracious enough to invite playwright/director Ingrid De Sanctis to talk about her life and her work.  Part one of the interview aired on Friday 3 February 2012. For those of you who missed it, you can click HERE to learn more about Ingrid and listen to a "sneak peak" of Sarah & The Dinosaur. 

Click HERE to listen to Martha's interview from last summer with Sarah Elizabeth Pharis.

An Inspirational Battle With Cancer
Inspires Play — and Fuses A Friendship         

Nikki Fox/DN-R
January 9, 2012 - Daily News Record 

HARRISONBURG — Somewhere in the middle of talking about her stage four terminal cancer and an upcoming play documenting her life, Sarah Pharis, 32, begins striking her “Katherine Hepburn face.” 

Sitting beside her on a deep purple velour couch at her Harrisonburg home, Ingrid De Sanctis, 46, launches into details of writing the play, called “Sarah and the Dinosaur,” a funny and sometimes heartbreaking look at her former theater assistant’s battle with ocular melanoma. 

In conversation, the duo — who met in the late ’90s at Eastern Mennonite University — are a constant flurry of eccentricities and excitement. 

Chatting about hopes for the play and making jokes, their dialogue often builds into hearty laughter and, only briefly, the two share moments of solemnity. 

Which is why it’s hard to believe anybody’s talking about cancer at all. But as De Sanctis and Pharis are quick to point out, the cancer is just a bizarre, unexpected catalyst in Pharis’ life that set the two friends on a journey to rekindle their friendship and create a play about “choosing life.” 

“For me personally to be able to step out of [the play] and go, ‘OK it’s my name and it’s based on my story, but it’s a story that a lot of people are living;’ it changes it for me somehow,” said Pharis, of Staunton, who was told she had six months to live when the eye cancer spread to her liver in 2010. “[The play is] not about me and it’s not really even about cancer it’s just about… ” 

“Choosing life,” De Sanctis says, finishing the thought. 

Yes, Pharis has terminal cancer and yes, that’s the basis of the play, but “Sarah and the Dinosaur” is really a larger metaphor for something that Pharis seems to demonstrate so well in her own life — overcoming hardships and living life to the fullest. 

Coping Mechanism  

Up until last week, the play was nothing more than a script filling about 50 pages, but EMU’s Lee Eshleman Studio and ShenanArts Theatre in Staunton have recently agreed to host the play, funded entirely by donations, this spring.  

“It’s important for our community to hear this story about this very courageous woman,” said Diane Stewart, vice chair of the ShenanArts Theatre board of directors. “I think [the board] just felt like she’s a strong and important person in our community, it’s important that her story be told.”  

The play, De Sanctis says, is her own way of coping with Pharis’ illness.  

“When you watch a young person get cancer and know that their years are limited, you do want to do something and for me the only something was [writing this play],” said De Sanctis, just before drawing a parallel between a Mitch Albom book and her and Sarah’s own loving friendship. “You know the book ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’? … Here we have our some days with Sarah, where we’re going to put on a play and I get all this extra time with her. It’s pretty cool.” 

Sarah’s Story  

Nikki Fox/DN-R

In the drawing Sarah made for the play’s website, she is wearing a crown as she shakes the hand of a giant dinosaur, naturally, wearing Converse high tops. 

The drawing echoes Pharis’ own sentiments about her cancer. You just can’t take it too seriously.  

Pharis was first diagnosed with ocular melanoma in 2006 at the age of 26. Though symptoms had been present for four years, doctors were unable to diagnose the melanoma until a tumor grew to 15 millimeters. Pharis had the tumor removed, which can blur vision or leave victims blind.  

“In my case, if I look at you through my right eye, it looks as though Picasso was left in charge of your face,” writes Pharis on her blog, “[Love X Infinity]2,” which originally began as a way to update friends and family members about her cancer and evolved into a resource for people with ocular melanoma. 

Living Life ‘Awake’  

The cancer spread to her liver in February 2010, which is when the melanoma is considered terminal. Almost two years after being told she had six months to live, Pharis is still proving doctors wrong. Pharis has had tumors removed from her liver and left ovary, which is the only way to treat the kind of cancer Pharis has.  

“With any hidden illness, I don’t look like a cancer patient. The kind of cancer I have, radiation and chemo don’t work on it,” Pharis says, like she’s mocking the words she’s likely had to say a thousand times, tired with the sound of them.  

“I, personally, and privately struggle with a lot of depression and a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear and it’s debilitating and chronic.

“On the inside, I look like one of those people who are incapable of getting dressed and bathing and being themselves, it’s a true disability,” she says, just before she drops a line that has De Sanctis smiling ear to ear and scrambling for a pen and paper. “But my vanity is a lot stronger than my cancer.”  

And though one may wonder how Pharis can be so whimsical and blunt in the same breath, that’s just the beauty of Pharis and her uncharacteristically good attitude, says De Sanctis.  

“It’s very hard for me not to add to the play,” said De Sanctis. “That’s the hard thing about being around Sarah; she’s constantly kind of magical.”  

A list of 35 things Pharis wants to do before her 35th birthday, reads just as one would expect: “Participate in an act of guerilla gardening, take a chocolate bath, see Tom Jones in concert, reconcile with my ‘enemies,’ send a message in a bottle, go sailing, live to be 35.”  

“[If] you walk out [of the play and] after 90 minutes are more awake to your life, that’s why I want to tell this story,” said De Sanctis. “In a moment where death is right in front of her, [Sarah’s] just chosen to be really awake in her life.” 

Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or