There are shy children, and then there’s 10-year-old Hannah Swain.
The energetic Sarasota native talks in circles as she tells the story about how, two years ago, her dream of meeting her idol, Miranda Cosgrove, star of Nickelodeon’s “iCarly,” came true. Hannah covers every detail: how she rode in an airplane for the first time; how she was upgraded to first class thanks to the generosity of a stranger and got to eat a free sandwich; how she sat in the pilot’s seat; how the taxi from the airport didn’t have air conditioning; and how she rode in a limo. In her version, a few more “likes” are strewn about.
Make-A-Wish Central and Northern Florida granted Hannah’s wish of meeting Cosgrove. After that encounter, she set her sights on becoming an actress and advocate for cancer awareness.
“If I didn’t (ever get cancer), I don’t think I would be doing acting,” she says.
Now, Hannah splits her time between Los Angeles and Sarasota as she works toward making it big. She not only enjoys it, she’s confident about her talent: “But, not to brag!” she’s quick to say. Sometimes she hides her face when she watches her own work on-screen; other times she thinks it’s really cool.
Since making the decision to become an actor, Hannah has appeared in one episode of ABC’s “Castle”; has done a few commercials; has won a Young Artist Award for best performance in the short film “Geronimo”; is waiting for a recent pilot for “YogaKids” to get picked up; and will appear on-stage in Venice Theatre’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” All of this — and she survived leukemia.
Her mother, Paula Swain, says advocacy through acting is her daughter’s calling.
“She says, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it some day, and I’m going to help kids with cancer and visit them in hospitals,’” Swain says.
Hannah makes appearances and speaks on behalf of Make-A-Wish Central and Northern Florida, The Pediatric Cancer Foundation, The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Cancer Society and Cookies for Kids with Cancer. She also has aspirations to do improv acting during hospital visits in Los Angeles.
Her life now is remarkably different than how she remembers it growing up. When she was sick, she used to have to wear a mask in public. And, although she’s mask-free now, she still hasn’t learned to drink from public drinking fountains.
Hannah was 4 years old when she was diagnosed. She remembers watching an old-fashioned stop-motion animation film while she was being transported in an ambulance to All Children’s Hospital, in St. Petersburg.
According to her mother, Hannah was at the beach earlier in the day, but wasn’t in the mood for her usual Ritz-Carlton Beach Club ritual of swimming in the pool and getting a hot dog from the snack bar. She was jaundiced, and her stomach started getting progressively inflamed.
Hannah was officially diagnosed with leukemia Mother’s Day 2007. White blood cell counts above 50,000 are considered high-risk; her count was 178,000. The next two-and-a-half years of her life were spent working to get that count to normal. And a great deal of that time was spent in the hospital, including birthdays and holidays.
But her mom and dad, Darren Swain, taught her to treat her sickness as if it were an ongoing cold — there was no “woe is me” behavior allowed. They did their best to make the experience better by packing suitcases full of games.
Hannah wasn’t scared when she underwent chemotherapy, sometimes swallowing up to 21 pills a day. She wasn’t scared when the cancer spread to her brain and she had to undergo radiation and lost her hair for the second time. And, even if her parents were unsure of the outcome, they never showed it in front of her.
Hannah maintained a positive outlook, and she says the possibility of death didn’t cross her mind once.
Hannah’s advice for other children going through what she did: “You have to have confidence that you’re going to get better,” she says.
Hannah’s story is akin to main character Joseph’s in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Hannah is strong and determined, and so is Joseph, which is why director Brad Wages opted to cast a Make-A-Wish advocate.
And Hannah hopes to inspire sick children with her role.
“Look at me now! I’m better, and you’re going to get better, too,” she says.
Five things that inspire Hannah Swain:
1. People — Actors and famous people inspire me to become an actor.2. My family — They took such good care of me when I was little and let me do acting and do all this stuff for me now. They could have said no. We live in Sarasota, so (my mom) drives all the way (to Venice Theatre) and sits and waits for two hours, then takes me home. Most moms wouldn’t do that, so I love her. And my dad allows me what I want to do and spends money for the acting part.
3. My friends — They don’t say, “Oh, you had cancer, I don’t want to be your friend,” or “That’s weird, I don’t want to spend time with you.” They like me for who I am.
4. All Children’s Hospital — The nurses and doctors, I love them like family.
5. God — He allowed me to live. Maybe because he thinks I’m a good person or because I’ll do good in my acting career.
IF YOU GO
‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sundays from July 24 through Aug. 4
Where: Venice Theatre, 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice
Cost: $10 through $25
Info: Call 488-1115 or visit venicestage.com