Raising the curtain on UCLA student Hunter Bird
Graduating senior overcame cancer and is poised for a career in theater
By Claudia Luther May 30, 2012 Category: Campus News
Perhaps if he had not contracted cancer when he was 18, perhaps if he had not undergone chemo and radiation and several surgeries during his freshman year, not to mention losing all his hair, Hunter Bird might have accomplished even more than he did during his undergraduate years at UCLA.
But that's hard for anyone who knows him to imagine, given what he did accomplish. And in some ways, maybe it was looking death in the eye that lit an even bigger fire in Bird to do it all — now.
"With that experience, I realized I have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow," said Bird, who turns 22 on June 6. "So if there's something I'm really interested in doing, I'm diving in head-first."
The musical theater and directing major from Palos Verdes, who was recently chosen to receive a Distinguished Senior Award from the UCLA Alumni Association, will walk with his classmates at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television commencement ceremony on June 15 with a degree he completed at the end of the winter quarter. He graduated a little early — minus a couple of minors he decided to forgo at the last minute — because he was tapped to be assistant director for an acclaimed production of "Clybourne Park" at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
When the "Clybourne" run ended in late February, Bird flew to New York City to direct the debut of a play written by a close friend, Kate Douglas, at New York University's Shop Theatre. Then he returned to Los Angeles to be assistant director for the Taper's production of a new play, "Los Otros," which is being directed by Graciela Daniele and runs through July 1.
A lot for just a couple of months. But everyone who knows Bird thinks that's typical — and just the beginning. "I look forward to our paths crossing in the future," Pam MacKinnon, the director of "Clybourne," said of Bird. "He's a very energetic, very open, eager, smart, clearly articulate young director."
Mary Jo DuPrey, a singing professor in the Ray Bolger Musical Theatre Program at UCLA and Bird's mentor for theater directing, agreed, predicting that Bird would be a force in American theater. "He's masterful at organizing resources and talents," DuPrey said. "He doesn't take 'no' for an answer — and I mean that in a very good way. He's got an unstoppable energy."
That drive to do everything as quickly as possible is in many ways tied to Bird's illness. He first discovered a painful lump in his paratesticular area in the spring of 2008, after he had accepted an offer of admission from UCLA. The lump eventually was diagnosed as rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer that is more common in young children but is also found in teens. Treatment was aggressive on every front, which led Bird's doctor to recommend that he delay college. But Bird, with the backing of his parents, insisted on moving forward.
"He was sickest when he was sitting on the couch," said his mother, Karen, a criminal law attorney in practice with her husband, George, in Palos Verdes. "We thought, if he sits at home for the next year and doesn't go to UCLA, he'll die."
Bird's physician finally conceded but insisted that he not live in a residence hall. There again, Bird prevailed, moving in with roommates who agreed to keep the room clean to help him avoid infection, a danger for someone undergoing chemotherapy.
Nor did Bird stint on his theater classes or activities. He took on a larger than normal course load, earning As. And he started a theater company, Act III Theatre Ensemble, to expand the options for him and his fellow UCLA theater students to perform.
"The chemo and radiation became like a side project, like a thing I was doing, which minimized the amount of space in my life that it took up," Bird said. Some days, of course, the side project stole his attention. One morning, after a weekend of what he called "super chemo" and an early-morning radiation session at the hospital, Bird went on to his ballet class. But soon he had to step outside to be sick. "I had a moment when I thought, I can feel bad or gross, or I can work my body and just get this stuff out of my system," he said. He went back to class.
During this time, Bird also created two performance pieces based on his illness, one in which he talked about how important his parents and his brother, Cameron (who is finishing his freshman year at UCLA studying design and media arts), were to him in getting him through his treatment.
"They never cried because if they cried, it would have given it power," Hunter says in the piece, which can be viewed on YouTube. "They stayed strong, and that's what saved me."
Which is not exactly the way his mother remembers things. "My husband and I had our moments of crying in the shower," Karen conceded. "But we tried to keep it as level as possible and put one foot in front of another."
They also laughed a lot as a family. And now that Hunter has been cancer-free for several years, there's free reign on cancer humor. For example, it takes only the mention of "sperm-banking" to bring everyone to tears of laughter. Mother, father, Hunter, Cameron — each tells the story of the day Hunter used the familiar method of preserving his post-chemo option of fatherhood while his mother knocked on the door, telling him to hurry so they could get to Fed-Ex by 5 p.m.
"Only families that have the experience of somebody in their family with cancer can appreciate cancer humor or the playing of the cancer card," Cameron said. "The whole experience brought my family closer. The most fun we have is when we're together."
"Our family is just ridiculous," Hunter agreed. "When you have two criminal law parents and two gay sons — I mean the Bird house is definitely a hysterical, crazy, crazy household, but we have a lot of fun, and we're very, very close."
Bird's zest for life didn't just happen when he became ill. He was already a high-energy guy who by the time he reached Palos Verdes High School had studied music and engaged in several sports, including 11 years of gymnastics. He was planning on a career in computer animation before seeing a production of "Cabaret" that changed his mind.
Knowing of UCLA's outstanding musical theater program, he chose UCLA over other attractive options, which thrilled his mother, a Bruin herself. "Hunter knew the eight-clap before he could count," Bird's father, George, said, referring to UCLA's famed cheer.
In his sophomore year, Bird was accepted into UCLA's theater directing continuum, adding another specialization to the one he already had in musical theater. He also pursued minors in digital humanities and in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies, which he later dropped in order to graduate a quarter early for "Clybourne Park."
Bird still gets checked every eight months or so to make sure the cancer has not returned. Now, with a few years' perspective on his diagnosis, he can see that in some ways he kept up a frenetic pace to deal with the medical ordeal that began even before he could take his first college class. These days he occasionally gives himself permission to take time for himself, to read a book or lay by the pool or just "be."
Still, after "Los Otros," he is actively considering his options, which could include a move to the East Coast to pursue theater opportunities. After all, he would not be Hunter Bird if he wasn't moving forward at a fast pace.
Perhaps later, he said, he'll return to his cancer experience on an artistic level, opening it up to see if it's a play or some other art form.
"I'm interested in the experience that you can only have inside a theater: the live communion between an audience and performers," Bird said. "At the end of the day, I'm a storyteller."
Hunter Bird's 'My Cancer Story':