My Theatre

16 February 2015

My Theatre Award Nominee: Q&A w/ Denise Mader

By // Theatre (Toronto)

3-Interview Series 2015Before we announce the winners of the 2014 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

Denise Mader’s intensely personal solo show about her mother’s death was both fantastically funny and devastatingly sad. To help with her audience’s emotional recovery, she served pie after every performance of This One (pie she’d baked fresh onstage!). Joyful, open and determined, to understand this Best Solo Performance nominee is to know that she served her audience freshly baked pie after every performance of a solo show she wrote about her mom.

DeniseCan you remember your first experience with theatre?
Absolutely! I was in kindergarden and we were doing a Christmas play on stage in the gym, in front parents and the whole school. It was a big deal, especially for a five year old. There were all sorts of characters in this pageant and I wanted to be a fairy snow princess because I would get a pretty costume, a wand, and would have magic powers. I would be able to dance around and be beautiful and graceful. But I wasn’t cast as a fairy snow princess. I was cast as Mrs. Clause and my best friend was a fairy snow princess. I was devastated but I tried not to let it show… too much. I was embarrassed that I was chosen to be the old lady in the frumpy costume who didn’t get to do anything pretty or magical. I got to knit. It was all made worse the day we got our costumes. My friend tried to make me feel better by insisting that Mrs. Clause was a much better, bigger, and higher status role than hers and she curtseyed to me in her sparkly tutu and tiara. I felt utterly patronized. I decided I would show everyone that I was the best actress by being the best Mrs. Clause I could be. I thought that they would see my performance and think, “She’s amazing! We should have made HER the fairy snow princess!” So during the show, my action was to sit in a little rocking chair down stage left, knitting. I knit with such commitment and focus, I was barely aware of anything else happening on stage. However, I had a costume malfunction. My little cap was held on my head with an elastic band and I felt like it was slipping and that the cap would pop off my head, straight into the air, to great comic effect and my mortification because I was being a very serious and real Mrs. Clause. Unbeknownst to me, I created a lot of unintentional comedy because I kept tugging my cap down so that it wouldn’t pop off my head like a champagne cork. My family still remembers my serious knitting and cap tugging. At the end of the show, I got up and took a bow with Mr. Clause. And THAT was my theatrical debut!

What artists have always inspired you?
In high school I was obsessed with Barbra Streisand. I bought all of her albums. I loved Funny Girl.

As an adult, I’ve been really inspired by my director, Melee Hutton. She’s a remarkably talented actress, director, and coach. Her clarity on all fronts is admirable.

I’m inspired by author Cheryl Strayed. A good friend thrust a copy of Wild in my hands when we met for brunch last winter and said, “Read this. I thought of you.” At that time I had never heard of Cheryl Strayed, but now I’m a huge fan. I read Wild while I was editing This One and it gave me such fortitude and courage to be as honest as possible. It affirmed my belief that the universal can be accessed through the deeply personal. I got to meet Cheryl at the premier of the film Wild at TIFF. I was dumbstruck. Eventually I spoke and it was wonderful to connect with her.

Would you consider yourself primarily a writer, actor or director?
What a fun question to answer at this stage in my career! I’ve done all of my training as an actor, so technically that is primarily what I consider myself to be. However, writing has always come somewhat easily to me. That’s not to say I don’t have a lot to learn and when I write I do have to work hard and edit and edit and edit and… you get the point. I suppose I don’t have much angst about writing, which helps me embrace and own it in a very simple way. I’m curious and excited to see what else I come up with. I don’t anticipate ever stepping into the role of director, unless for my own work. Otherwise, I’m not interested in being at the helm of everything and everyone involved in a production.

What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I do recall a very sweet short story, which I also illustrated, about a duck. That was probably in grade one or two. Childhood days aside, there was poetry during my teen years and twenties. Who DOESN’T write poetry in their teen years and twenties? There were countless journals, all attempting to understand, organize, and plan my life, my experiences, my frustrations, my goals. I learned how to be a better writer at York because I had to write a thesis and I was very fortunate to have Eric Armstrong as my advisor. He was very helpful and patient. This One is the first piece of theatre I’ve written.

This One

This One

Tell us about your nominated play This One. How did you decide to make your mother your subject?
I had wanted to create a solo for a long time. Prior to starting the MFA Acting program at York, I had spent a few years watching solo shows, especially successful solo shows. I was curious to see what people did, what structures or stories either did or did not appeal to me and draw me in. I wanted to create a show for myself but I had never written for stage. I find it much easier to write descriptively and so it was a challenge to write something that would be seen and heard as opposed to read.

One of the MFA Acting program requirements was to create a short solo show over the summer term and then present it in the Fall. This had been on my mind all year. I was so stressed about it, unsure of how I could ever create something out of nothing. During my first year of classes, every time I had an idea or image for what could be my solo show I would mark it in my journals with a star and the words “Solo Show Idea”. At the beginning of the summer term, I went through all my notebooks from the year, highlighting all of the solo show ideas. When I looked back over them all, I realized that over eighty percent of them were about my Mom. I had always wanted to honour my Mom in a piece of theatre, and had made sketchy attempts, but nothing was ever right. The decision to make my Mother and myself the subject of my show was really a no brainer. It was coming out of me and it was time to do that personal grieving and acceptance work, and through that experience, transmute my journey into a piece of theatre.

What’s your writing process like? Do you plot and plan or just start at page 1 and work through?
This show is a bit unique in that I created a complete piece for my work at York, and then a year and a half later I had to break it apart and find a way to expand it into it’s current full length. The original piece was about 25 minutes. We were supposed to create pieces between 10 and 15 minutes. I broke the rules! That original creation process was challenging in that I knew that I wanted to talk about my Mom and tell stories, but as an actor I wanted to play something immediate, with clear, strong purpose. So, I had to find a way to talk about the past in an immediate and believable context. That first stage of writing involved a lot of research. I talked to my family and friends of my Mom and found out so much more about her than I knew before. I wrote my own memories, and explored their relevance. I also wrote about the process I was going through that summer. A process of confrontation and grief and eventually, the first wave of acceptance. Then I had to find a context and structure in which to mash it all together and do something that wasn’t sentimental and had purpose and drive for the character I was playing, this character of myself in these imagined, specific circumstances. That was a big challenge as well.

Then writing the full length version was a whole other feat. At first I thought it would be fairly simple, just add more stories. But then my emotional journey in real life had progressed drastically since the original version, so I had to work that in as well. It was challenging to put something down in writing that is ever evolving. Myself, my relationship to my Mom and my grief and joy will always be changing. It’s never done. It’s a part of my life so it’s always moving to a certain degree. So I had to come to a point in the writing process where I felt satisfied with not just what I was saying about my journey, but how I was saying it, and how I was living it. Melee Hutton and Kristin Boivin were incredibly helpful throughout rehearsals. We found lines that needed to be said in either the original version or the recently expanded version no longer needed to be said. It was in the breath, in a look, in an action. They also would remark on the writing, pointing out things I would have seen in another playwrights work, but didn’t necessary see in my own. It was great! They were really supportive of the piece and helped me see specifics I had written but not necessarily appreciated.

Did you go through a lot of drafts? How did the play change through the development process?
Heck yeah. When I started expanding the piece, I broke down what I had into sections and subsections and gave each piece a label. Then I wrote new material. Tons of new material. I had newsprint with big lists of titles of stories, themes, and ideas I wanted to write about. As I wrote each section, I crossed it off the list. Then I was left with the original structure of the piece and all this new material to fit inside of it. I started feeling constrained and lost so I followed some advice from my younger cousin who suggested I blow it apart and write a whole second act that was totally different and addressed many of the new things I was trying to express but having difficulty fitting into the original structure. I then wrote this thirty minute scene that was going to be the start of act two where the fourth wall went up and would be on this whole other journey with a character I talk about in one of my stories in act one. It was a great diversion, but ultimately didn’t work because it took away from the messages I wanted to focus on in the first half. But the diversion allowed me some breathing space and expression that for some reason made it possible to integrate what I needed to say in the old structure. During a workshop with Melee and Kristin in the Spring of 2014 we found that the show had to be cut down to the fifty-five minute piece that it is. It was like a balloon – too much air, and it lost it’s strength and burst apart. The whole re-writing process felt like I was wrestling, trying to catch a pig in a big pit of mud. But I caught it, the squirmy little sucker!

Did the show change much in rehearsals?
There was one big change that I have Melee to thank for. In the original piece I offered the audience coffee or tea, but I didn’t really intend to give anyone coffee or tea. In a show where I’m really there with people and really making a pie, it stuck out. Melee said that if you’re going to offer, you really have to do it. So all of a sudden I went from being up on stage, separate from my audience/guests, to really welcoming them, really serving coffee and tea, really being with each and every person that came in that door, as much as I could. The vulnerability and authenticity that required, without the traditional safe separation of me on stage, making an entrance once the house lights went down, was a challenge. That day in rehearsal when we really identified what the opening of the show was, I laid flat out on the floor, just taking a moment to take in what that meant, what I found so challenging about it, and the fact that I always seem to create the thing that’s hardest for me to do, just so I have an opportunity to dig in and do it. And also that I create my own necessary challenges long before I’ve even been able to identify them. I had to laugh at myself. Melee’s direction brought the show to a whole new level of love and connection for me, and I think for many people who saw it as well.

There weren’t big changes to the text. Really just the omission of lines that no longer needed to be spelled out because they had become a part of me and the show so much that they didn’t need to be said. I think that’s one thing about this piece that I love the most – the fact that there are so many layers in the creation and performance process.

What are some of the rewards and challenges of a solo show?
Reward: Not having to rely on other performers that could let me down on stage.

Challenge: Not having any other performers that could help me out on stage.

I had to learn to throw myself my own balls. It’s not easy. I have a huge appreciation for stand up comedians now. For the really good ones who work their material, work with what’s going on for them in the moment, and with what’s really going on with the audience. It’s a juggling act and there is no where to hide. Especially with this show because I am playing myself. I had to learn how to be myself and be honest yet still live the performance I had rehearsed. Any effort to cover up judgement or fear or failure only created a wall between myself and the audience and my Mom and my stories. I had a bit of a learning curve with this show as it was my first time doing a lengthy solo piece over a two week run. I had to understand what caused me to react in ways that I didn’t intend and how I was dealing with those reactions. Once I understood this pattern within myself I could adjust and work with those reactions, which then allowed me more freedom and play and connection. It’s a similar process to what my show is all about. I had to learn to lean into the hard things and own them while I was writing the show, and it was no different when performing. The other side of leaning in is absolutely worth the risk, in both life and art!

You made a pie live onstage every night. How’d you come up with that idea? Did it ever backfire?
I didn’t come up with the idea. My best friend thought of it. Like so much of that original creation process, I just followed a random instinct I had that summer to learn how to bake pies. My Nan taught me, and making my first pecan pie by myself was pretty special. I took that pie to my friends house for dinner. As I was talking about my show and trying to figure out what on earth I was going to do with all these random stories and feelings I was writing about, she said “You should make a pie on stage!” I wrote off the suggestion until a couple days later when talking to another friend and out of nowhere he said, “You know what you should do? You should make a pie on stage!” and I thought, okay, there is something here that perhaps I’m not seeing. So the next day I took my baking equipment, most of it my Mom’s original stuff, to the studio at York. I spread it out on a table and it just felt right and I immediately realized, yep, this is what it has to be. I sat in the studio and wrote and wrote and started shaping the structure of my journey around the process of making a pie.

Nope, it never backfired! Like I say in the show, I’m a really good baker! I can roll with the punches pretty easily when baking. Except that first rehearsal where I had to try and put it all together for the first time. The pressure of trying to remember my lines, act, bake, and time it all together was stressful. But it’s just a matter of repetition.

It was an incredibly emotional piece. What sort of reaction did you get during and after the run?
Oh, it was absolutely incredible to connect with people after the show during the reception. The pie reception is an essential part of the piece. People shared their stories with me, their grief, their fears, their joys, their connection to their mothers. They thanked me. They said they didn’t know I was the performer when I welcomed them and was chatting and serving coffee and tea and then all of a sudden the show had started with stuff flying across the stage. They asked about my family. One woman said that I had touched the root of female pain. I mean, it was just wonderful. And for those who like to bake, we talked about baking and I signed the recipe books I was selling at the show. A few weeks ago I ran into two women who came to This One at another show in town. It was like running into old friends. I’m very honoured that people came and stayed to talk with me.

Has your family seen it? What was their reaction to your story about your mother?
Most of my family has seen the show. Some people have been at every incarnation of the piece (I did the short version at the Hamilton Fringe Festival in 2013) and some came for the first time to this full production. It’s funny, my family and friends of my Mom all wonder what it must be like for people who don’t know me or who didn’t know my Mom to see my show, and people who didn’t know her can’t imagine what it’s like for them to be watching my stories and my memory of her come alive on stage. And somewhere in between the two groups, somewhere in between the woman my mother was and the memory and spirit I connect to during the show, is me.

Do you have any plans for another production of This One?
I would love for This One to have many more productions! I’m investigating how to connect with other producers or companies who may be interested in the piece.

What are you working on now?
I’m stepping back into the role of actor for hire after a year away from it while I was writing, producing, and rehearsing This One, traveling, and doing my yoga teacher training. I am excited to start writing a new show. My next project will probably take what started writing with my This One diversion and develop it into a new piece. On New Years day I said to a friend, “What am I supposed to write about now? I just did the biggest thing. Nothing it bigger than my Mother’s death” to which she wisely replied, “Why don’t you write about the smallest thing?” So who knows? Whatever the next thing is, I know it will be very different as This One is very unique. I’m also adapting my short comedic solo piece called Someday into a screenplay. I am working on making it into a short film. It’s totally different than This One. It’s quite funny and a bit outrageous. I’m also moving in a couple weeks, so I’m working on that! Does anyone want to come help carry boxes and furniture down three flights of stairs and onto a pick-up truck in the middle of Winter?

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
THANK YOU! I’m so thrilled to be nominated and to have this opportunity to write about my work on This One.
Fun fact: I’ve started doing pie baking classes for my friends who previously could not bake pies. It’s lots of fun and so satisfying. My pie baking journey is coming full circle. It reminds me of the famous and wonderful Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

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