Dead Man Laughing is the one-man show by Premda Lowson that tells the story of his diverse life experience that involves life in the engine room of a Royal Navy frigate, to an ashram in India, to nursing on psychiatric wards, to living with Tibetan monks and now, life after two years of living with the diagnosis of inoperable cancer with just 18 months to live.
Premda is an actor, performer and contemporary storyteller who lives on the south coast of NSW with his wife, Jan. In mid-August, he will be performing his show Dead Man Laughing, directed by Howard Stanley at The Byron Theatre.
From the start Premda was an out-of-the-box thinker, stirring up trouble in the navy with his Marxist views. In fact it was those very views that had him released years early from a 12-year contract owing to fear that his opinions could make him a ‘security risk’.
‘You learn how to shoot your mouth off in the navy,’ says Premda. ‘Here I was meeting these middle-class people and many of them had been there done that and could take me on without getting emotionally invested. So then I started to listen, and I thought wow – and this led me into the work of RD Laing, who was a radical psychiatrist who spoke of the divided self, about how the environment shapes the individual, which fitted with my Marxist ideology and that led to a process of self-discovery. I went to London to a ‘growth centre’, all part of the counterculture at the time; that led me to meeting group leaders who were running encounter groups and primal therapy and things I knew nothing about and were mystifying to me, but I found when I got over my fear of it and I saw myself in ways I never had – before and it wasn’t political. I was beginning to appreciate that love was the answer; this led me to India, to Pune and from there I went into the ashram and followed the teaching of Osho.’
It was an extraordinary time in culture and Premda believes that being caught in that wave of change was very much a matter of ‘luck’.
‘I got caught on that wave. They said at that period that if you added up all the people doing the ashrams, alternative communities etc or going to Tibet and chanting, that was about 200,000 people globally. It was just a river and I was just lucky in that 10-year period that I was swimming in that culture.’
Premda doesn’t just tell the story of the past, navigating counterculture like a tall ship in the wind; he docks in the present day tying his vessel to the social movements of today.
‘There is a lot of focus now on why and what makes people depressed. What we are starting to focus on now is what makes people happy; psychologists have been discovering all sorts of wonderful things, and there is the beginning of a shift from pathology of disease onto health – the more you expand health, the pathology will atrophy and disappear. We used to study the illness, but that does not apply to our interior states. There’s a shift towards transpersonal psychology…’
Somehow, through the company of actors and musicians, Premda found his way to the stage, and most recently has pushed the security of the scripted piece aside for improvised theatre that tells his unique story.
‘I was doing a show that started off with a lot of Stephen Berkoff, and then in between that and the theatrical pieces I would start to talk anecdotally, and after the show people said they wanted to hear more about you when I talked about myself. It was hard to come to terms with; it went under the radar. I felt unworthy – who wants to listen to my bullshit? It took a couple of years before I let go of Berkoff and launched into my story.’
Premda believes that the concepts of unworthiness were his biggest hurdle in accepting that his story would be ‘enough’ for a theatre audience.
While his original shows had ‘no repeats’ of stories or narratives, Premda said that started to change after his cancer diagnosis.
‘I have advanced prostate cancer’ it’s at its final stage and it’s in the bones.’ Suddenly a lot of Premda’s narrative became about the daily experience of living with a terminal illness – that can at times be completely debilitating. In fact there was a time a few months ago when he was so sick he didn’t think he’d make it to the show. His resilience and positive attitude seemed to propel him through space, with or without cancer, and suddenly Premda had a powerful story to tell. After all cancer is very much a taboo subject, and one shrouded by fear.
‘I sometimes take a slapstick approach – I talk about becoming gradually incontinent, and about my strategies – such as packing women’s sanitary napkins down my trousers. I talk about erectile dysfunction, and using injections at the base of the penis. I started talking to my penis before I gave it an injection – we all suffer from the anxiety. Whenever I tell that story I always get a big laugh.’
Premda didn’t always have such an easy attitude to his cancer. ‘In the beginning I was looking down the barrel of a gun. But anything you do with meditation and groups leads you to a place of letting go.’
Premda presents Dead Man Laughing at the Byron Theatre at the Community Centre on Saturday 15 August at 7pm.
Tickets are $20 at the theatre.
The show contains adult content and is rated 18+.