Shelley Marshall is a brash and beautiful comedian that has mixed old school glam with modern day soccer mom and has cut herself a niche in the world where laughter is king. But this queen of comedy isn’t always laughing. For the last ten years, Shelley Marshall has offered small glimpses into a life less ordinary and found that dysfunction resonates more universally than people might want to admit. Marshall has found joy in her previous pain and now celebrates the oddity of life in her new theatrical production.
Written and performed by Shelley Marshall and directed by Linda Kash, Hold Mommy’s Cigarette is the culmination of ten years of discovery on the comic stage. Marshall has gone from lone stand up gigs to touring the country with Puppetry of the Penis and since toured Europe and beyond. She’s hosted her own Full Bawdy Comedy Variety Show and even co-hosted the Hamilton Music Awards but now she has her first one-woman play.
“It started out as stand up, using little pieces of my life as jokes and then I developed it into a play explaining, ‘here’s where the jokes came from, folks. Is it funny now?” laughs Marshall as we talk at the Lyric Theatre where her life will be bared for all to see. Normally, Marshall is more at ease with baring stories of fellatio gone wrong or even baring her own bottom – but with Hold Mommy’s Cigarette, Marshall exposes the harsh reality well beyond simple bawdy comedy.
“To build as a stand up, you have to really slow down and I think that’s why I’m going into this theatre aspect of my comedy,” reasons Marshall. “When you first start out, you’re just popping jokes for that quick, instant laugh but sometimes you can tell the whole story and the reaction can be just as strong and sometimes better. I’m kind of attracted to the shock and awe of it all. I like the many kinds of awe sounds from an audience and I like to stir them up.”
Shocking, sad, sentimental, surly, and salacious, Marshall’s unedited life is what you get with this new theatrical production.
“I’m taking all of those elements,” says Marshall. “The name of the production says it all – Hold Mommy’s Cigarette. That’s what I did at the bank, at the store, at the bus stop – whenever mom was going into her purse, there I was. And the title – it’s the whole process of understanding there’s some dysfunction here, there’s some co-dependency here, the behaviour of the mother, there’s so much that line says and it’s the truth.
“The piece is set in 1972 and everywhere was always filled with smoke,” adds Marshall. “I remember the first time I realized I wanted to be a performer. I was eight years old and my uncle Jack drove me up the mountain to a place called Duffy’s Bar. It was this dirty little bar you could sneak an eight-year-old girl in and I would light my uncle’s cigarette while he watched the burlesque dancers. There was the singing and the music and I just looked up at them and said, ‘I want to do that’. My greatest pleasure as a child, and now as a woman, is to make people laugh. I love the sound of laughter. It’s healing to me and it makes me feel safe.
“But I cry a lot,” adds Marshall. “I am like an eight-year-old child. I’ll cry over something silly. There is still a big part of me that’s quite sad and I’m overtly capable of expressing that because I don’t care. I’m just like, ‘where are my stupid pantyhose?’ I don’t even go to therapy anymore because I always leave feeling as if [the therapist] owed me money for laughing through half of what I said and I’m just trying to find myself. I prefer now trying to find myself onstage.”
Raised in Hamilton’s east end in a steelworker family, Marshall embodies the average Hamiltonian and the truth is sometimes difficult to take. Her confident demeanour and beaming smile wouldn’t betray the fact she grew up with a schizophrenic father who would eventually commit suicide and a bipolar mother that offered her own interesting inspiration.
“I spent a lot of time living with my grandparents as well,” remembers Marshall. “My mom was probably hitchhiking somewhere or looking for a dad for us. As a child, I thought my mother was the most wonderful person in the world. She looked like Doris Day and sang like Barbra Streisand and I was infatuated with her persona and her energy – but that was when she came out of the bedroom. Sometimes she didn’t come out of the bedroom for three or four days but when she came out, wow, it was really interesting.
“I think a lot of us hide in our bedrooms and then we come out and play the part that we want to be perceived as but I try not to do that,” adds Marshall. “I try and show all aspects of me so if I am having a crap day, I let it show. Why not be honest? I had to understand these characters in my life completely in order to survive and that’s why I can mimic them so well. It was a pretty dysfunctional upbringing but quite similar to a lot of other people’s upbringings. I’m celebrating my past.”
Shelley Marshall revisits her upbringing and recreates some of her painful experiences but in retrospect, the humorous elements are obvious. Hold Mommy’s Cigarette is a testament to the human spirit, to a strong Hamilton character and to the hilarious courage of Shelley Marshall.
“It’s a collage of everything that has affected me and made me who I am,” says Marshall. “There are a lot of pieces of these characters that I bring with me on stage and that was really important. I actually wear my grandmother’s housedress, my mother’s engagement ring on stage; it makes it very real for me.
“But the reality is I find joy in getting out of my pain and turning it into something special that people will see their own families in,” adds Marshall. “No matter what, we all take pieces of the past with us through life and I celebrate those pieces because it is funny. This is also about how people can survive this. I tried medication, self-help books, Oprah Winfrey and in the end, it’s about support, community and getting out there, and for me, it was about performing and doing my art. Now, you get to see how I did it. This is for anyone that wants to see what survival is about and going beyond surviving, becoming who you are, true to the core. With Hold Mommy’s Cigarette, I take certain things from childhood and we learn that, well, maybe Shelley came out okay.” V
Shelley Marshall presents Hold Mommy’s Cigarette at the Lyric Theatre. January 17 -19 and 24 - 26 at 8pm. Tickets $16 - $25.
Click on shelleymarshall.com for more info.