KOOL KAT OF THE WEEK: From Kitten to Big Foot, Big Time and Roxie Roz: The Scrumptious Ascent of Mary Strawberry

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Mary Strawberry. Photo credit: Marc Turnley.

The ROXIE  ROZ BURLY-Q SHOW transports audiences back to the bump, grind and bawdy humor of the 1950s and ‘60s this Saturday Feb. 27 at 9 p.m. the Star Bar ($10 presale tickets here; $15 at door). The show is hosted and produced by one of our very first Kool Kats, Shellie Schmals, who is now even more of a dynamite power force in Atlanta’s burlesque scene, and it stands out because acts are accompanied by a live band, none other than Andrew and The Disapyramids, featuring Kool Kat Joshua Longino. The line-up of performers at this not-to-be-missed night out equally rocks, featuring such divine artists as Sadie Hawkins, Candi Lecouer, song bird Jen Thrasher and more.

ATLRetro has had our Kool Kat eye on Mary Strawberry, one of the rising stars taking the stage at Roxie Roz, for some time. Not only is  this classy lady cute as a button, but she has a killer sense of humor and multiple talents well-known to the Atlanta theater community.

We caught up with Mary recently to find out more about what drew her to stage and burlesque, the inside scoop on Roxie Roz, her exotic travels, a dynamic documentary, her advice to beginning performers, and much more!   

You’ve got a long background in theatre. What drew you to the stage as a little girl? Did you have a few favorite plays, performers?

Theater is in my blood. I’ve never known a time where I didn’t want to be on or behind the stage; it just feels right and completes me. My family is pretty quiet, and they all have stories of boisterous little me doing all kinds of stunts and performances all the time. Our chiropractor, who I’ve been seeing for over 20 years, even asks what shows I’m working on and reminisces about seeing me in community theater productions in elementary school. I’d definitely always prefer to see a play over a movie—there’s something exciting about the urgency and stakes of something happening right now and only right now, and the performers being right there looking back at you. My favorite plays include DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD and AVENUE Q. As for performers, I grew up admiring folks like Angela Lansbury, Dick Van Dyke and Jim Henson‘s creations. 

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Photo credit: Kevin O’Connell.

How did you first discover burlesque?

I don’t really remember the exact moment I discovered burlesque, but I really got into it in college. It was part personal revolution, part loving the difference and history of performance art instead of mainstream art, and part feeling a sense of belonging in the crossroads of my passions for dance, performance art and bodies. My final project for my degree was actually on the “Difference Between Sexuality and Sensuality and the Use of the Body in Art.” 

You started as a stage kitten for a lot of local burlesque shows. Stage kittens are essential to the success of any show. What did you learn from that experience?

Kittening is a great way to get your foot in the door past being a patron and admirer. It got me a lot of connections and friends in the industry and a close-up look at the inner workings, from how dancers prepare and make their costumes to how the shows function. The kittens, or pick-up artists, or stage helpers—they go by so many names— are a crucial part of the show. I particularly enjoy working backstage at Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend (BHoF) in Las Vegas every year. I get to meet so many incredible performers and touch all their costumes!

Why the name Mary Strawberry? Is there a story behind it?

My name is definitely personal. It’s a bit familial, a bit cutesy and a lot of recognizable nods. I was named after my great aunt Mary, who served in WWII and was an incredible person. The Strawberry comes from the natural color of my hair, and it’s my favorite fruit and one of my favorite smells. Plus, they rhyme, so it’s easier to remember.

How long have you been performing burlesque and do you have a favorite performance so far?

I think I’ve officially been performing burlesque for just over three years, although I’ve been working behind the scenes as a kitten and stage manager for much longer. I put so much of myself into each of my acts it’s hard to pick a favorite, but half of my enjoyment of a number comes from the audience’s enjoyment and reactions. For instance, my go-go sasquatch number (yep, I dress up like Big Foot and strip!) started out as just a goofy piece for me to express my weird, clownish true self, and it’s morphed into this social justice piece about the natural state of women’s bodies and their right to grow hair. It’s really cool! It definitely makes me feel more connected to the history of the art and parts of the modern neo movement by taking something entertaining and infusing it with politics and satire. I like being able to make people laugh and think at the same time.

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Photo credit: JC Barger.

You’ve been traveling to some exciting places lately. Has any of that been for burlesque or is it for your other theatrical work or just for fun?

Some from A, some from B. In 2015, I performed in seven states and Canada. I love traveling and performing in new places because it allows me to expand my work and make more contacts while getting to experience how artists create in other places. There have been places I’ve enjoyed more than others, but I’ve also found some really great art in very unexpected places, like Idaho. They have more than just potatoes, there’s also a really amazing burlesque community in Boise! 

I also went to Prague this summer for a set design and performance art festival I’d been dying to get to for eight years. It was a full week of wandering around a beautiful city and experiencing art from around the world. Two of my favorite pieces were from Thailand, and I got to see an awesome traditional clowning group from the Czech Republic. One night, I even stumbled upon a group of Austrians who had literally built a full bar in a closet! So many unforgettable moments. 

Tell us a little bit about the Roxie Roz Burly-Q show. Shellie has become quite a force in the local burlesque community. What’s it like to work with her?

Shellie is a doll. This will be my third show with the Disapyramids in the last year. I had always wanted to dance with a live band because that’s how the ladies from the golden era did it, so working with them is like a dream come true. They’re so relaxed and enjoy what they do just as much as I do. Shellie is so passionate about producing shows that people are excited to see. She has big dreams for Roxie Roz, and I definitely think she’ll achieve them. There’s so much variety squeezed into these shows that everyone can find something they love and you won’t be bored for one second. 

Anything you can tease us with about your act at Roxie Roz?

This month I’ll be doing another classic and funky juxtaposition. I’ll be revamping my number from the pit bulls benefit last spring, and breaking out my sideshow chops! You won’t want to miss this chance to see “both” sides of me…

What’s next for you burlesque-wise?

I have several shows scheduled right now after Roxie Roz, including the Mayhem Femmes one-year anniversary show—the theme is Dark Carnival and it will be at Taverna Plaka on March 19. The week before, we’re starting up a new show called Bettie Bullet Presents: Sex Ed Burlesque. It’s going to be the best sex ed class you’ve ever taken! That one is at Shakespeare Tavern on March 12. I’m booked to “compete” in the Wheel of Tease show in Seattle this August (it’s similar to Last Pasties Standing for all my ATL fans), so I’m hoping to turn that trip into a tour. I’m also working on a documentary called THE BODIES OF BURLESQUE. The director is a friend from college, and when she found out that I’m a burlesque performer she became fascinated with the body positivity the community embraces and asked me to do this project with her. I’m honored to be a part of it, and I hope it helps people find the will to be proud of themselves just as they are. You can find info on all of my upcoming shows at themarystrawberry.com and facebook.com/marystrawberryatl.

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Photo credit: Marc Turnley.

We see body diversity as a defining and empowering aspect of the contemporary burlesque scene. Can you tell us a little more about THE BODIES OF BURLESQUE?

One of the things I love about the current burlesque movement is that it focuses on individuality and diversity. There’s such a huge push for “all bodies are beautiful.” I think that’s a major reason why it’s so popular and attractive, particularly to women. With the huge media presence in our lives telling us that beauty is this or that box, it’s rare and encouraging to find a place where not only can you feel comfortable in your own skin, you’re celebrated for it. I don’t think my body is perfect, but I do think it is beautiful and real and something to be proud of. My body allows me to pursue my dreams of being a dancer, and that’s worth celebrating. I’ve seen and worked with performers of all different shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities, and I cheer each one on just as much as the next or last, because in burlesque it doesn’t matter if you look a specific way, it matters that you have passion and confidence. 

You also do a lot of non-burlesque stage work. What local productions might folks have seen your work featured in?

Most recently, I was the seasonal technical director at Dad’s Garage Theatre Company, where I worked on THANKSKILLING THE MUSICAL and MERRY F***G CHRISTMAS. It’s a great company to work for—a welcoming community of artists that puts on top notch comedy shows. I’ve also done a lot of designing for schools around the city in the last few years. Currently I’m looking for a more permanent position on a theater’s technical staff, but am also trying to work towards a more sustainable career as a performer. I’m planning to add a bunch of new skills and acts to my tool box this year, so there will definitely be more new and exciting things to see from me soon!

Finally, what one piece of advice do you have for young women entering the burlesque world now?

This is really two-part: first, don’t be afraid to chase after what you love and what makes you feel whole. Finding your niche is so validating and empowering, especially if you have to fight and work your butt off for it. Never give up on your dreams!

Second, please recognize the difference between being a professional and a hobbyist. There’s a lot of talk on the Internet about artists having a difficult time getting people to pay for their art because they don’t see it as a career. I love that people are finding their voices and freedom through this rich style of performance art. It’s a great community that’s very supportive, diverse and unique. But realize that if this is just for fun for you and you take jobs for cheap or free, you might be taking a meal or rent away from a professional artist and devaluing the industry as a whole. There are definitely places where hobbyists fit in, and that’s great! Take classes, do showcases, join open mic nights, I encourage artistic expression and will be in the house cheering for you! Just please be conscious of the reality of the other side of the equation so we can all grow and thrive together.

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