After Shelley Marshall was hospitalized, a doctor told her she needed to express herself and create.
HOLD MOMMY’S CIGARETTE written and performed by Shelley Marshall, directed by Linda Kash. Presented by Marshall at the Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley). Opens tonight (Thursday, April 4) and runs to April 7, Thursday-Sunday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $25, mat pwyc. 416-821-1754, holdmommyscigarette.com.
You could say comedy saved Shelley Marshall's life.
Thirteen years ago, she was a homemaker living in a farmhouse outside Hamilton. She was suffering from depression, had survived one suicide attempt and was subsequently hospitalized for three months.
"Part of my recovery included a doctor telling me that my soul was creative," she says. "I needed to express myself, to create."
Soon afterwards, she enrolled in Second City classes - commuting via GO Bus to Toronto - and graduated a year and a half later.
"I don't have my Grade 12," she says, "but I have Second City."
That kind of frankness marks her best work, whether it's in her deliciously bawdy stand-up act, which she's been doing for almost a decade, or her theatre performances.
Her new show, Hold Mommy's Cigarette, explores her traumatic childhood. Her brilliant, schizophrenic father killed himself when she was 14, and her daydreaming, manic-depressive mother desperately looked for a replacement, finding one ("a very horrible one," says Marshall) only to die from cancer in her early 40s.
Marshall was raised by her chain-smoking, homophobic grandmother.
"How do you make this funny?" says Marshall, looking radiant and warm in the NOW Lounge. That, in fact, was the question that plagued her for years.
It was director Linda Kash who recognized the cathartic power of Marshall's stories and got her to home in on the essential part of the play, the patterns of mental illness in her family.
"I didn't want the show to be therapy," says Marshall calmly. "I've been through that. Then I finally figured out how to make it funny. You have to show the truth, become these people, these characters, so completely - because they're funny."
Growing up, she says, laughter meant something special.
"As a child, I knew that if my family was laughing I was safe," she says. Other times, she retreated into a fantasy world of acting in front of mirrors and making out with posters - something she replicates in the show.
The response has been spectacular, both in a workshop here in Toronto and in a sold-out run in her former home of Hamilton (she now lives in Leslieville). Audiences have lined up for over an hour to share their own stories with her, and McMaster University has asked her to present the show to its medical faculty and students.
And what does she think her parents and grandmother - all of them gone - would think?
"I think they'd say, ‘Go for it,'" she says. "My grandmother would probably go, ‘Jesus Christ, if you're going to make some money, just do it.'"
These days, Marshall, who's the proud mom of two adult queer children, says she still deals with anxiety issues, but she hasn't been hospitalized again.
"I know how to deal with it," she says. "Meditation, walking. When I feel something coming on, I'll pour myself a cup of tea and put in a Jerry Lewis movie."