Lee University student learns about sacrifice for role as a cancer patient in 'Wit'

Lee University student learns about sacrifice for role as a cancer patient in 'Wit'

September 23rd, 2011 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

Natalie Brouwer, a sophomore at Lee University, poses for a portrait inside of the Conn Center at Lee University. Brouwer was cast as the lead in the university's upcoming play, "Wit," about a professor who is diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Brouwer agreed to shave her head for the role.

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

Going bald was never a part of Natalie Brouwer's plan.

But when the 20-year-old Lee University student was approached by theater professor Dan Buck last winter about auditioning for the lead role in "Wit," the offer came with one caveat: If Brouwer won the role, she would be required to shave her head.

"At first I was really hesitant," she said. "That's really scary. Hair's pretty important to us as women."

After much contemplation, prayer and discussion, Brouwer came to a decision.

"One day I was just like 'you know what, I'm not going to be little comfortable Natalie, just staying in my comfort zone, not really taking chances.'"

So two weeks ago, with her three roommates by her side for support, Natalie had her head shaved.

"I don't think I could do it," said roommate Hannah Aven. "I'm not brave enough."

The gravity of the play itself, about a professor who is undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, helped motivate Brouwer's decision.

"We all have cancer in our lives, affecting us," she said, "but this play is about so much more than cancer. It's about a woman who struggles to find God and who struggles with her intellectualism and how she hides behind that. The cancer is what breaks down that wall."

The act of shaving her head has broken down walls for Brouwer, who was never an introvert, she said. She wanted to step away from being the "sweet, pretty, fun girl." In other words: playing it safe.

"I'm not the type who is going to jump off of cliffs," she said. "The riskiest thing I ever did with my hair before this is getting bangs, and that was a freaky time."

Brouwer's proverbial cliff jump has been an inspiration of sorts to people close to her.

"I think it's been a challenge to me and the other girls to look at what's important to us and what we would sacrifice for it," Aven said.

The months of mental and emotional preparation, Brouwer said, allowed the act of having her head shaved to be far less traumatic than she'd anticipated.

"I was expecting to start bawling as soon as they took the razor to my head," she said. "But I had prepared for the worst, and when I didn't cry, it was a very liberating experience."

She prepared for her new look by purchasing a collection of scarves and earrings, and indulging in a series of hair cuts and color changes. "It gave me a different kind of confidence that I never had," she said.

Being a young, bald woman, however, leads to some uncomfortable moments. People have wondered if Natalie, who has a slight frame, is actually ill herself.

"People have asked friends of mine if I actually had cancer," she said.

Anticipating the possibility of this error was a concern, Aven shared. "She didn't want to make it seem like a mockery of what other people go through."

The confusion, Brouwer said, is part of the reason why she is dressing up her newly bare scalp in scarves.

"I'm not ashamed of my bald head," she said, "but there needs to be a wall separating the cancer patient who is having chemo and losing her hair, and Natalie who cut her hair for the show."

"She'll say, 'That's Vivian. Vivian's bald, and Natalie is not bald," said Aven.

Playing the role, preparing for it in a physical manner has brought the 20-year-old a stronger sense of awareness. She has been consulting with a woman at her church who is a survivor of breast and ovarian cancer, the disease with which her character is affected.

"I don't just act because it's something that is fun," Brouwer said. "In order to do something like this, it would have to mean so much more. The fact that the play is so meaningful was part of the deciding factor.

"I don't know what sort of crazy things I might get a chance to do in my life as an actress, but I know another part of the reason I did this is it's a way for me to show people there is so much more to me than my hair or my outward appearance.

"My worth isn't necessarily found in that, and I'm willing to go beyond to get the kind of message across that this play embodies."

"We're upping the stakes and taking it to the next level for our students," Buck said. "We're saying that theater is worth sacrifice."

The significance of losing one's hair has been a topic of discussion among the cast members.

"(Natalie is) a young girl, she's very beautiful, and this is a big sacrifice for a girl to say good-bye to her hair for a time," Buck said. "So there's loss there, and it would be silly for us not to delve into that and talk to the rest of the cast about looks she gets or questions she gets."

Buck said Brouwer has drawn comparisons to another actress who shares her name, who also once shaved her head to play a role.

"Everyone says she's like Natalie Portman (in 'V for Vendetta')," he said. "She looks just as good bald as she did with hair."