J.G. Chayko rehearsing on stage.

It’s the unique fragrance of a fresh make-up sponge, the heat emanating off curling irons, the dazzling lights illuminating the green room mirrors; it’s the rustle of costumes, the cluster of roses in a crystal vase, the murmuring of the audience behind the thick curtain; it’s the swell of anticipation in taking that first step onto the stage, saying that first line, and waiting for the first burst of applause.

Long before the thrill of acting, I first knew the stage through dancing. I once heard a tale of a three year old girl that climbed onto an empty stage and twirled – that girl was me. I was destined to be a performer. I spent a portion of my childhood in Saturday morning classes studying tap dance, ballet and drama. I faced my first audiences in school concerts and dance recitals, and they planted the seed of inspiration within me. In junior high, my drama teacher cast me in the school production of I Was a Teenage Dracula. I played a ghoulish character who appeared to be a servant of Dracula, but in the end it was revealed I was simply a patient who had escaped from the nearby institution. It was an extraordinary experience and I had tasted the first morsel of stage life – it was an addictive flavour and there was no turning back.

I spent the next several years training in dance and auditioning for theatre shows. I studied a variety of dance styles, adding swing, salsa and belly dance to my growing repertoire. The dance studio was my secret treasure, my joyful diversion after a long day of work. It allowed me to lose the frustrations of life in music and in the power of my own body. I felt invincible in these early years. I conquered new moves and won new roles in the theatre. There was no competition between dancing and acting – they both allowed me to challenge myself in new ways.

I juggled both genres until RA swept in and cast me into a new role.

The strenuous world of dance slowly ebbed under the increasing pain of RA, but I refused to let it take my theatrical life. Theatre, to me, is just as therapeutic as physiotherapy or occupational therapy. Theatre pulls me out of the realm of the everyday and allows me to step into a new pair of shoes and a different reality for a couple of hours. I get lost under the lights, lost in creating a new world for the audience, and in this, I can escape RA for a little while. There’s no greater fulfillment for me than walking onto the set for the first time, bringing a character to life, and inviting the audience along for the ride. The thrill of live theatre is deliciously unpredictable and always stimulating. I revel in the challenge of bringing an audience to new emotional heights, making them gasp, making them laugh, or making them cry.

I have the stamina to do one or two shows a year – when I’m not walking the stage, I turn to my own words. The passion of storytelling has always infused my life. I was an avid reader growing up, often reading ten books a week from our local library. I escaped into the realm of my own imagination, creating my own plays, casting roles from the myriad of stuffed animals that decorated my bedspread. This mutated into writing stories and poetry, and writing became my foundation in fueling the power of my own imagination.

My passions are who I am. They are written into my DNA. They are my sustenance and my lifeline, and no amount of growling from RA is going to stop me from pursuing them. I will always find a way to shape my creative life around chronic illness, whether it’s on the stage or on the page.