In 2018 dancer and performer Stephanie Bissonnette made her Broadway debut in the hit musical "Mean Girls." For Bissonnette who has been dancing since her preschool teacher discovered her natural ability and encouraged her mother to put her in dance training, the opportunity was the ultimate dream come true.
“When I was in preschool I would sit on the floor with my legs in a split and play with my little farm action figures. In my head I thought of my legs as a fence for my farm animals," shares Bissonnette who has a BA in Dance Performance from the prestigious Conservatory of Performing Arts from Point Park University and danced in shows on the Royal Caribbean and in theaters around the country. “As a kid I could be pretty shy. Dance was my way of expressing myself. It is such a freeing way to release all of these feelings without having to say anything. Sometimes I'm more confident when I'm dancing than I am just talking to someone.”
Stephanie Bissonnette (Photo by MurphyMade Photography)
Based on Tina Fey’s hit film of the same title, Bissonnette was cast as high school student Dawn Schweitzer. "Mean Girls" is all about how to figure out your way amid the harsh place called high school. The production was nominated for 12 Tony awards, including Best Musical. The show has a dream team at the helm. In addition to Fey who wrote the show’s book, the show’s music is by Jeff Richmond, lyrics by Nell Benjamin, and director/choreographer Casey has done many shows including Aladdin, The Book of Mormon, The Prom, Something Rotten, Elf, The Drowsy Chaperone and on and on.
An original cast member, Bissonnette had been with the show since its development and out of town run back in 2017. “Many of us in the cast have been together for two years every day. I see them more than I see my family,” says Bissonnette who performed on the "Thanksgiving Day Parade," "Late Night with Seth Meyers," "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon" and the "Tony Awards." “We would be doing the "Today Show" at six o'clock in the morning, then going back to the theater and doing the show that night. We are constantly together.”
In 2019 Bissonnette was experiencing headaches and mild dizziness. She originally thought it stemmed from a recent concussion. “I am super active and healthy, so there wasn't really reason to think it was anything else,” she explains. However, within a few months the headaches got worse. “All of the sudden moves that are so easy for me were difficult,” she says.
She went to the emergency room, received an MRI and the neurosurgery team at the hospital told her that she had a tumor. However, based on its positioning and amount of blood, they felt it was most likely benign. However, after Bissonnette underwent surgery, the diagnosis was a total But nine days after surgery her diagnosis revealed something altogether different.
Bissonnette who was just 28 at the time had a very rare form of cancer usually found in children called Medulloblastoma, Not only was her life transformed in an instant, “When I was told, ‘You can't go back to work. You have cancer,’ I said, what do you mean, I can't go back to work? I have to go back to work. I finally got to Broadway. I worked all this time to get here.”
On January 7 it was announced that the Broadway production of Mean Girls will not reopen due the pandemic. The production's final performance was Wednesday evening March 11, 2020. The show had a record setting run at the August Wilson Theatre playing 805 performances and 29 previews.
On her Instagram bissonnette wrote about her sorrow and gratitude for the show and the people connected with it. "From cancer to corona virus this group of people has held me up. I’ve laughed til I cried and cried til I laughed," she wrote. "There are simply too many memories to even dump on Instagram that will remain in my heart forever. The past 4 years have been a rollercoaster of hard work, joy, struggle and triumph. Not being able to say goodbye is a tough pill to swallow. But today I woke up and I take the next steps. It’s always darkest before the “Dawn”. And Dawn will always be a huge part of me!"
Bissonnette shared more about her diagnosis and journey to healing.
Jeryl Brunner: What happened after your diagnosis?
Everything was all so sudden. After I had surgery, it took me about six weeks to recover from that. Then I went through the six weeks of radiation, which made me so sick. Because the radiation was pointed at a spot that was so sensitive from surgery, it delayed everything from healing.
Jeryl Brunner: How did you get through?
I have a strong support network. My parents, teachers, friends and Mean Girls family. I would have a crying fit saying, ‘I'm never going to be able to dance again or go back to the show. I'm going to have to change careers. All these things made me panic. My parents always reassured me saying, "You’re going to be fine. You've always been a fighter. Give it time and let yourself heal.”
Also, a bunch of my Mean Girls castmates came to the hospital before a two show day. At one point I had rented studio to choreograph a video. But I was too sick to use it and couldn’t get my money back. I texted everybody in the cast asking if anybody needed a studio space for anything. The entire cast went to the studio and filmed a dance video for me. When I saw it I cried for three hours. It was the sweetest thing anyone's ever done for me. Also before my surgery Tina Fey sent me a video where she showed me a photo of me and said, ‘I'm putting this by my bed until I can hug you in person.
Jeryl Brunner: You ultimately returned to Mean Girls after eight months out of the show. What was that like for you?
I was more nervous than I was during my Broadway debut. It was probably the most nervous I've ever been on stage. Off-stage, I was that five year old kid again, saying, “I can't do it. I can't do it.” But I realized I was in my head about it. mean, you of course I could. I did it over 700 times for the past year and a half before all of this happened. I nervous, excited, had friends in the audience and was back with my cast.
Each show got better and better. I still had my moments here and there where I thought “I used to be better at this specific section, and now am struggling to get through it.” But those moments got easier each day. I have to try to be patient. I feel lucky to be in a show that I could leave for nine months, come back and it's still going strong, which is incredible. I’m also grateful to be a part of a company that would let me do that. At the end of the show when we bowed, I would look out at all the people and think, “Oh, I made it, I'm doing another show, another day.” I’m so lucky that I get to dance around and be a high schooler for a few hours, and get paid to do it.