It is not often that you see a production which moves you to recognize and acknowledge the injustice in today’s world; it is even more rare to see an actress who understands and embodies a play’s themes, message, and core as fully as Mal Malme. For her brilliant and inspiring performance as Cy Burns in the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production of Ginger Lazarus’s Burning, Mal was nominated for Best Actress in a Play. In her interview, Mal explains the importance of a play like Burning, the complex and empowering process of producing original works, and her advocacy, both on and off-stage towards acceptance and strength.
Mal, can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where did you grow up? What do you do? What is your theatre background and history?
I grew up on the South Shore of Massachusetts. My background as a theater artist started in the early ‘90’s, I owned my own DJ company; ventured into stand-up, imrov and sketch comedy; and then jumped with both feet into full theatrical productions. My first professional play was in 1995 with Triangle Theater, one of the few queer theater companies in Boston at the time, and the play was Holly Hughes’ Well of Horniness.
In the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, I was one-half of sketch comedy duo, The Brian and Mal Show. We performed in several theaters in Boston, as well as in Provincetown, and also performed in high schools, colleges, and conferences as a means to raise awareness of LGBTQQI rights.
In 2002, I co-founded Queer Soup Theater with four other theater artists, and, for the past twelve years, we’ve created original works including Invasion of Pleasure Valley, My Yolanda Love, Home, We All Will Be Received.
Talk to us about your character, Cy, in Burning. Who is she? What is her story? What is significant about this role?
Cy is a fascinating character that I feel so honored to have been able to inhabit. She is a former First Sergeant in the Army, who quit because she could no longer tolerate the injustice and violence against women soldiers, including the death of her girlfriend, happening during her deployment. She found a home in the Army, a place where she belonged, where she could make a difference, but when that home betrayed her, she had to leave. And after leaving, it became her mission to fight that injustice through her blog. It’s through Cy’s words that the audience learns of the horrors taking place in the military against soldiers serving their country. These are inspired by actual events, in which women soldiers were brutalized and murdered, many for being gay.
Cy also feels unlovable. Her family rejected her. After her partner in the army is killed, she feels an enormous amount of guilt for not being able to stop it. So, when she falls in love again in the play, with Rose (played by the stunning Jessica Webb [nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Play]), a free spirit in town, she hides her feelings from Rose, and expresses them only on paper. Cy is, at the heart, a passionate, loving, fierce human being whose only outlet during the play, is writing. But she can’t let herself feel the naked truth because that takes a bravery she can’t reach through most of the play.
Ginger [Lazarus] wrote such a vulnerable impassioned complex character. It’s my hope that Burning, with Cy’s story, informed audiences of the absolute injustice many women and LGBTQQI soldiers encountered from within the army. And that injustice must stop so all soldiers can serve with dignity and honor.
What was your most memorable or favourite moment while performing this role?
There are many moments that I still cherish and that resonate for me. This was such a powerful experience in so many ways. For me, as someone who is part of the LGBTQQI community, and who, in doing research for the role, spoke to friends who shared with me firsthand experiences of being harassed, beaten, raped, and kicked out of the military, making sure I got this “right” was paramount. So, being present for every moment on stage was the only way I could honor their lives and their experiences. The scenes I had with Dulac were incredibly intense and pushed Cy’s buttons to the core and required such focus for me, and the scenes with Sammy and Rose, allowed me to explore Cy’s humanity and intense love and loyalty to those about whom she cared.
I heard that you had played this role in prior productions, despite it being a newer play. Can you tell us about the evolution of your character, Cy, and the changes made to the show as a whole?
Ginger first wrote Burning as a one act, and my theater company, Queer Soup Theater, held a staged reading of it in conjunction with another original one act, the theme was “Queering the Classics,” and Ginger chose Cyrano [de Bergerac]. That was over three years ago; I have been playing Cy since then in many readings.
With the play becoming a full production, the arc of the story has changed several times, and Ginger has deepened the richness and complexity of all the characters, as well as done a tremendous amount of research with regard to the atmosphere inside the military and the army and the stories that are told about soldiers in the play.
For me, having the opportunity of living with the character of Cy over many iterations has allowed me the luxury of time, to really explore and understand what makes her tick. I know I was able to bring more to the role for the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production this fall because of that history.
What is your favorite part about working on a newly-written play? Do you have any dislikes? Do you have any challenges?
I truly love working on new works, and it is at the heart of what I do as a theater artist. I have the unique privilege of bringing a character from the page to the stage for the first time, with the help of the playwright, the director, and my fellow actors. It’s challenging and unnerving, and it’s also a great deal of responsibility, but it makes me feel so alive as a performer to dig down and explore what makes someone walk through the world in the way they do.
What challenges you? What enrages you?
Every time I step on stage, I am challenged because, in that moment, anything can happen. I could forget a line, I could truly hear a line for the first time, I could hear a line or a moment between a line delivered by another actor in a different way than before that could change the next moment. For me, it takes several performances for certain nuances to kick in, and that always keeps things fresh and reminds me that it’s all about listening, to the other characters, to the silence, to the movement, to the audience, to what’s going on in me in that moment.
While researching for the play, reading accounts, interviewing friends and others about their military experience, I was so enraged by the outright hypocrisy and injustice within the military. That there were service men and women, who took an oath to serve, with honor, with dignity, with courage, and who were brutalized and killed by fellow officers. Not only was nothing done about it in many cases, but they found ways to twist it into something else. Reading accounts of women and gay soldiers who believed in these ideals, who chose to join the military and serve their country, and were utterly betrayed by their commanding officers who were supposed to be the ones who were the gold standard, just absolutely to this day, stirs up for me, such sheer anger and heartache. This total abuse of power, by those who are supposed to be setting the example, I don’t understand how they can sleep at night.
Injustice, in all its forms, enrages me, and, as an LGBTQQI and women’s rights activist and advocate, this is what pushed me and challenged me to make sure every time I stepped out on stage as Cy, I made it count. I wanted to do all I could as an actor and activist to honor the lives of all the service people I read about and had the honor of hearing their stories. That was so incredibly vital for me to do as an actor, as a human being.
Why do you think that Cy and Burning impacted audience members? What was significant about this role and this play?
This story has never been told before. And because it’s based on events that have been occurring, and are still occurring in the US military today, many people are learning about it for the first time. As part of our research for this play, we watched the documentary The Invisible War, a film about the violence against women serving our country. It is beyond fathomable that this [injustice] has been happening and that so little has been done to stop it. We were so fortunate to have a talkback after one of the performances with a panel of former military who experienced firsthand this violence and brutality. It pushed me to make sure every time I set foot on stage as Cy that I was bringing everything I could. I wanted to do something to honor their courage and humanity.
Do you have any on-stage nightmare or disaster stories from this play or other productions?
You want me to tell you all the times I screwed up on stage?! I had a lot of lines in this play, and I was terrified that I would be standing on-stage and go blank right in the middle of a monologue. I have to say, there were a few moments when I would drop a line, it’s live theater and my brain is far from a perfect machine. But my fellow gifted actors made me look good every night, and I hope I gave them half as much as they gave me.
You had phenomenal chemistry with your co-stars, particularly Alexander Cook and Jessica Webb. How did you develop such intricate and dynamic relationships? What advice would you give developing actors who wish to create the same kind of intense and thoughtful relationships with their on-stage partners?
I lucked out. Truly. To share the stage with such skillful and generous artists. There were moments during the rehearsal process when I felt as though I was letting everyone down. I felt lost and overwhelmed, and, with only three weeks to stage a brand new play, it can be very challenging; I wasn’t sure I was going to get it all in my brain and bones by opening night. But Steve Bogart, our wonderful director, allowed us to explore each scene and think about what we wanted in each moment, what were we telling, what were we hiding, what did we want from each other. He trusted us to discover those moments, and especially with Jess, who is so present in everything she does, it made those moments come alive. I’m truly grateful for her.
Is there anything about your performance that you would change?
You don’t have enough time to listen to me go on and on . . .
I think really, looking back, I’m sure there were moments that I could have listened better, or brought another level to Cy in some way, but I have to honor what was real. I can’t express how grateful I am for what was. And it was such a privilege to play Cy and to tell that story and to be the vehicle for Ginger’s words, and to be on stage with Jessica, Steve, Alex, Zach, and Ian and collaborate with Steve Bogart [also nominated for Best Director of a Play]. I cherish it.
Mountain or beach? Why?
Beach. I grew up near the ocean, and I can’t live without it nearby. It’s part of who I am and reminds me of how awesome nature is and the possibilities of life. That sounds like a Hallmark movie, but it’s true.
Do you have any favourite stories? Is there any classic story that you would want to adapt or see adapted for the stage?
Whatever Ginger Lazarus is writing next, that’s what I want to see.
Do you have any upcoming productions or projects?
I have four projects that are roaming around in my head and some are happening in some form.
I am collaborating with fellow Boston actor and good friend Becca A. Lewis on a children’s show about gender stereotypes. We have nieces and nephews who are still getting messages about pink and blue, and princesses can only be girls. We want to do a show that empowers little kids to do and be whatever makes them happy.
I am also an ovarian cancer survivor and I am interested in developing a solo performance around that.
And I’ve been working on a children’s middle grade novel for the past couple of years.
I am also open to doing more new works . . . hear that Boston?!
What is your proudest moment on-stage? In real life?
Playing Cy Burns in Burning. Truly grateful for that experience. I can’t say it enough.
My theater company, Queer Soup Theater, in 2005 created and produced a show called Home, at the Boston Center for the Arts, and it was about the intersections of faith, family, and gender identity and expression. It was definitely a show that challenged me to discover something about myself that has helped me be more “me” in the world. And, as a theater company, it challenged us to stretch and grow. I was really proud of that show.
On January 12, 2014, I ran my first marathon. I never thought I would run one, let alone finish one. And it was in memory and in celebration of a good friend of mine who passed away this past year from pancreatic cancer. It was truly an experience that reminded me of what it means to be alive and to be human and to appreciate every moment, even when it’s hard as hell.
Do you have anything else that you wish to share with our readers?
I am so honored and grateful to be a part of the Boston theater community. I get to do what I do, and I hope that audiences will keep coming to shows and supporting the work of so many who live in the theater. I am grateful for all those who came to see Burning and I hope more will have the opportunity to see it when it gets produced again. Which it will!! There I said it. So it must be!