On June 22, 2012, actress Laurie O'Brien will descend into madness. And it won't be the first time.
"I Am Chrissie," O'Brien's new one-woman show at the Katselas Theatre Company's Skylight/Skylab Theatre, draws directly from her experience conducting theatrical workshops in Denver mental institutions in the late 1970s and tells the story of Chrissie, a mentally unstable homeless woman with whom O'Brien had a special connection.
When O'Brien left Colorado to pursue a professional acting career in Los Angeles, she again journeyed into insanity. Her wrenching performance in 1982's "Mary Barnes," in which she portrayed the English-born artist and author battling with schizophrenia, led to much critical acclaim, including a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award and an L.A. Weekly Award, among others.
Since then, O'Brien has enjoyed a successful and varied career with starring roles in such theater productions as John Patrick Shanley's "Savage in Limbo" and John O'Keefe's "Times Like These"; supporting roles in major films like "Gas Food Lodging" and "Harry and the Hendersons;" as well as guest parts on most every hit TV series over the past few decades.
The role for which she's perhaps best known, the voice of Miss Piggy in Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, may have surprised theater elites following her dramatic work in "Barnes." O'Brien, who cinched the part with no previous voiceover experience, went on to play the iconic pig in the animated series from 1984 to 1991. In short order, the show's characters were everywhere, including albums and toys, which helped O'Brien bring home the bacon and establish herself in L.A.
As she prepares to once again immerse herself in madness for "I Am Chrissie," O'Brien recalls another transformative experience in Denver teaching transsexuals how to discover their voice as women. "They had such courage," she says. Ultimately, she says, her detour into mental health has given her the strength to create what she hopes is the biggest noise yet of her career. "I'm doing a little show about a little person with a little voice," she says. "But it needs to be heard."
How did you meet Chrissie and why did you decide to tell her story?
I saw Chrissie both on the street and inside my workshops. She challenged me, scared me and questioned me, which made me really dig deeper and deeper into why I was doing the work that I was. It was the 1970s -- an interesting decade when I feel like everyone kind of lost their minds.
Chrissie was not very cooperative. She was one of the people who I would see make this circle: I would see them in Denver General Hospital emergency room and they would not get better; and then I would see them at Fort Logan State Hospital, where they'd been committed; and then I'd see them at the Activity Center, an outpatient facility where people in the community could come and get a hot lunch and participate in workshops. She was one of those people I saw in all three places. She used to circle my workshops at the Activity Center and throw barbs at me.
There was an extraordinary breakthrough that happened with us, which I handle in the show.
Did this breakthrough make you look at yourself a bit differently as an artist?
Yes. I would often question the "good" I was doing. At the time I was having a difficult time living in Denver and saying I was an "actor." You couldn't really earn a living at it. I was a big fish in a small pond. I was splashed all over the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post for the theater work I did, but I didn't get paid for it. So the way I was trying to survive as an actor was through these theater workshops, which allowed me to stay true to the craft and use my Masters degree in psychology to help people, which I've always been committed to doing.
My acting career took this detour into mental health and humanitarianism -- and in that I found my soul and my character, which gave me the ability to portray those characters I have throughout my career. And that's what Chrissie, and the others who I helped, did for me. She showed me her madness, and I went into that madness with her and then came back out. The truth is that what I got from her is my sanity, my strength, my understanding of how strong I am. That strength allowed me to admit that there was value to being an actor. And it wasn't just, "Look at me. See how pretty I am and how well I can tap dance. " As an actor, I feel I'm the window to people's vulnerability. I unzip myself and I experience things so that you don't have to-- so that you can have a cathartic experience. I'll do that and I'll be OK. And the reason I know I'll be OK is that I went there with Chrissie and I came back and I'm strong.
Why do the play now?
When I walked away from there, I made a promise that I would tell their stories. I've been trying to do that for all this time and sticking these notes I'd write into a file. I came to a point where I had to figure out what to do: Should I turn them into a novel? Should I turn them into short stories? Maybe I should just throw them away?
Director Tony Abatemarco emailed me that he was doing a workshop with Michael Kearns at the Katselas Theatre Company called "Solo Mojo" designed to help you find your voice as a writer and performer. I thought: Oh, maybe this is what these stories are supposed to be. And then when I started doing the workshop, I got lost in it. Finally I decided it wasn't going anywhere and one day I just told myself it was time I put these stories away and move on. These things are too dark and I don't want to deal with them anymore.
That night I went to bed feeling a little guilty but relieved. Then at 4:32 a.m., I heard this voice: "I Am Chrissie. You've got to get those files out and tell the story." I kept rolling over and saying, "I don't want to deal with this now. I'll remember it in the morning." And she kept hammering away at me saying: "No you won't. I got the story!" So I got up and brushed my teeth trying to get rid of her, and went downstairs, but she didn't stop: "I am Chrissie." I made tea. And she's still saying, "I am Chrissie." So finally I got out my laptop and threw my head back like Stevie Wonder, and just started typing!
Gary Grossman, the producer of the theater, saw me perform 10 minutes of it that we were doing as part of the workshop, and came up to me after and said, "I want to produce this." Then the race was on because I had to finish writing it!
What should people get out of the production?
Empathy. Getting that about other people and ourselves. This show is ultimately about hope and courage and there is a lot of humor entwined in it. Art indeed does heal and although my job was kind of scary, I reveled in it. It's important that my audience walk away thinking a little differently, positively in fact, about the people they see living on the streets -- the street people, as we called them back in the '70s.
I have to ask about Muppet Babies and Miss Piggy. How did you end up doing that part coming off of such a dramatic role like Mary Barnes?
I know! It really doesn't matter what I've done. Everyone wants me to tell them about Piggy! And "Miss Piggy" came directly from "Mary Barnes." Well, actually indirectly.
An agent Herb Tannen saw me in "Mary Barnes" and then in a comedy I had done after and wanted to represent me. He thought I'd be good at voiceovers, but I didn't have voiceover training. The first thing he sent me out for was a Hanna-Barbera audition where I had to do 50 voices. They called me back so I thought: I must be doing something right. It was encouraging.
Then one day Herb called and asked: "Can you do Miss Piggy as a little kid?" I didn't really know who she was. I told him I couldn't do it, because I was working on another one-woman show. And he said: "No, you don't understand. You WILL go out for this."
At the time, I had this baby voice I used to run around and do: [demonstrating], "I'm gonna make a million dollars off of this voice." I'm sure it annoyed people. I went to the video store and rented "The Muppet Movie" and I found this phrase: "My name is Miss Piggy, and I want to be a high fashion model."
So I began to say that phrase in the voice I was going to make a million dollars off of. I kept playing Miss Piggy's voice from the movie over and over to get the rhythms down. I brought the recording into the audition and I would listen to it, and read it, and then listen again to get the voice back. Of course the audition was for "Jim Henson's Muppet Babies." There were 750 people who auditioned for it and I got it!
I'd be standing up there singing like a pig and making all this money, thinking: What an extraordinary life it is to be paid to do something that much fun.
At one point, I was lying on the deck of my house and thinking that something really major had shifted in my life. And it's not just the voiceover work, which is the most fun thing on the planet. The relationships I formed, particularly with Russi Taylor, Hank Saroyan and Janis Leibhart, are lasting and still strong today.
Purchase tickets for the world premier of Katselas Theatre Company's "I Am Chrissie," written and performed by Laurie O'Brien.
Top Image: Laurie O'Brien. Photo by Ed Krieger.
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