HPR: Deadly tomatoes led former executive to riveting solo performance – Calgary Herald

Posted: January 9, 2020 at 7:47 pm

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When Vancouver native Keith Alessi says that tomatoes tried to kill him but banjos saved his life he means it both literally and metaphorically.

Alessi was a corporate executive whose job was to fix ailing companies. In the fall of 2015, he decided to retire only to be hit 13 days later with a diagnosis of stage 3 esophageal cancer.

The doctors told me I had a 50 per cent chance of living a year and a 15 per cent chance of living five years. It came as a crushing surprise to me because I had never smoked, say Alessi.

After a series of tests, the doctors concluded his cancer was the result of a lifetime of acid reflux and the big culprit was tomatoes.

I come from an Italian household where tomatoes in all forms were a big part of my diet. Thats the literal explanation. My Italian father was a highly abusive man and that is the metaphorical way in which tomatoes tried to kill me.

For decades before his cancer diagnosis Alessi had been collecting banjos.

I was fascinated by them. Collecting them became my passion. I never learned to play them. Just to collect them. When I was diagnosed with cancer I became determined to learn to play the banjo and I vowed I would become skilled enough to get on stage and play before an audience no matter how small.

Alessi says he dragged himself out of his man cave and learned to play. He also began telling people his story of triumphing over adversity.

I had so many people tell me I should create a show and so I decided to enter the Toronto Fringe lottery. More than 1,000 people applied for the 100 positions at the fringe and my name was first out of the hat and thus began the journey that has brought me to Calgary, Lunchbox Theatre and the High Performance Rodeo.

Keith Alessi brings his show, Tomatoes tried to kill him but that banjos saved his life, to Lunchbox Theatre and the High Performance Rodeo. Courtesy, Erika Conway Calgary

Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life, Alessis solo show in which he tells his story and plays several of his banjos, plays at Lunchbox Theatre from Jan. 11 to 25, beginning its run as part of the 2020 High Performance Rodeo.

If truth be told, and Alessi insists he holds nothing back in his show, that first summer at the Toronto Fringe was a disaster.

They gave me six performance slots and I think I might have played to a hundred people total. I had to cancel one show because nobody turned up and the critics panned me, but I was not about to give in.

The next year I entered the Edmonton Fringe Festival lottery and received a slot and kept working on the show, making it more conversational and more personal and at my last performance I received a standing ovation.

Alessi has kept entering fringe lotteries and, beating the odds, has won a slot each time. In 2019 he got into eight fringes including New York, Orlando, Regina, Windsor, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver and even Brighton, England.

That summer, the show really caught on and I sold out every single show at every fringe and after every performance people came up to me to thank me for my story and to share theirs with me.

Alessi didnt get a slot in the Calgary Fringe Festival but Lunchbox Theatres Shari Wattling caught his show in Edmonton and booked him for the theatre.

Ive been on the wildest of rides and it doesnt appear to be stopping any time soon. Great things keep happening for me. The universe has been very good to me and I am grateful and I am listening.

Co-presented by One Yellow Rabbit and Lunchbox Theatre, Tomatoes Tried to Kill Me But Banjos Saved My Life runs between Jan. 11 and 25 in Lunchbox Theatre during the High Performance Rodeo.

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HPR: Deadly tomatoes led former executive to riveting solo performance - Calgary Herald

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January 9th, 2020 at 7:47 pm