Dan Rosen is reliving one of the worst moments of his life onstage: a disastrous cold-water enema.
It happened when he was 16 years old, five years after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. In the retelling, he is desperately clenching his butt cheeks, reaching out in Shakespearian fashion, his face stretched with tension, willing himself to withhold a rapidly forthcoming bowel movement as an epic symphony plays behind him.
His stage manager, who stands close by, hits pause on the rehearsal. She suggests he slow it down even more. “I want to enjoy this torturous moment,” she says.
Rosen straightens up and nods. “I don’t want to enjoy this torturous moment,” he replies with a smile.
Rosen is bringing this story – and plenty more stories of humiliating self-defecation – to the Montreal Fringe Festival, which runs from June 7-16, where he will debut his one-man show, Game of Crohn’s. The autobiographical play is Rosen’s first major chance to open up about living with the disease for more than 20 years.
“It’s kind of an invisible disease,” he says. “What I’d like is for more people to know what it is, to normalize it.”
The 32-year-old writer and performer first started talking about Crohn’s onstage a few years ago, when he was working amateur stand-up gigs around his hometown of Toronto. Back then, his set was still mostly composed of observational comedy – the kind of typical Seinfeldian stuff you see many young comics mimicking with varying degrees of success.
“I thought about doing Crohn’s jokes, but I chickened out, because I thought people would think it’s too gross,” he recalls.
One day, he decided to include the story of his first cold-water enema. It earned consistent chuckles from the audience, but a few big laughs hinted that he was onto something. After that set, the evening’s MC came up to him and suggested he include more hospital stories.
So that’s what he did. Over the following months and years, Rosen tried out different Crohn’s stories in his act, testing what audiences would best respond to. He quickly realized that straight-up poop jokes didn’t work – but focusing on the emotional pain behind those poop jokes did.
Once he began opening up about how embarrassing it was to repeatedly crap his pants, audience members started coming up to him after his shows, thanking and congratulating him.
“It was a better way to bond with audience members than doing observational comedy,” Rosen says.
In 2017, a friend suggested he compile his stories into a coherent show to tour Canada’s fringe-festival circuit. Rosen had just finished an improv show at the Toronto Fringe Festival and found the experience overwhelming, so he submitted the idea to Montreal’s smaller festival instead. After his play was accepted, Rosen landed on the Game of Thrones pun for the title, which lent a pre-built atmosphere to the production: a grand soundtrack and Westeros puns underscore the seemingly life-or-death impact that Crohn’s has had on his life.
He is working with Alison Louder, a Montreal-based director who has Celiac disease – meaning that she understands the subject matter of the play all too well.
A few days before the show opened, Rosen took part in Montreal’s Gutsy Walk, to raise awareness about the disease – and his show.
“I was diagnosed around 11,” he explains, “so I want kids to come to the show to see, hey, this isn’t so bad.”
Game of Crohn’s runs as part of the Montreal Fringe Festival from June 7-16. For tickets, go to montrealfringe.ca.