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

Posted on: Feb 23rd, 2016 By:
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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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KOOL KAT OF THE WEEK: Tromaville in L5P: Nick Arapoglou Radiates as the First Superhero from New Jersey in Horizon Theatre’s THE TOXIC AVENGER

Posted on: Feb 17th, 2016 By:
Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre's production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER (Wed-Sun., through March 13) is a musical comedy based on the cult 1984 Troma film.  If that means anything at all to you, it is likely the best news you’ve heard all day. The plot will be familiar to fans, and I don’t want to spoil anything for the rest of you. All you need to know about the show itself, depending on how seriously you want to take it, is to expect social commentary on pollution, corrupt politicians and a deft satire of the superhero genre. And a seven-foot tall mutant with superhuman strength and a heart of gold. The original stage production opened in New Jersey in 2008, followed by a successful Off-Broadway run in 2009.

Local actor Nick Arapoglou plays the lead. Nick, originally from Huntington, NY, went to high school in Atlanta and moved back here after college. He has been acting professionally for about a decade, notably as Princeton (for which he learned puppetry!) in all three local productions (at three different venues) of AVENUE Q, and he won 2011’s Suzi Bass Award for Lead Actor in a Musical. Other roles during the past few years include Asher Lev in MY NAME IS ASHER LEV (Theatrical Outfit), Romeo in ROMEO AND JULIET (Shakespeare Tavern) and Bobby Strong in URINETOWN (Fabrefaction Theatre). “Of course, I also enjoyed THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI at Theatrical Outfit, because my wife played opposite me in that show for three years straight!” Nick said.

In addition to a diverse stage career, the actor has done lots of on-camera work . Look for him later this year in the films TABLE 19 (with Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), THE ACCOUNTANT (Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick), THE BOSS (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell), and CONFIRMATION (Kerry Washington).

Needless to say, those are some fantastic credits, but yeah, we admit we made Nick Kool Kat of the Week now because we think he’s in the role of a lifetime. And we’re absolutely troma-tized that he took time from his trashy schedule to talk Toxie with ATLRetro.

Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Not funny! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

First of all, what’s it like to portray a pop culture icon? (and make no mistake…)

Ha! I think when you are playing a role where there are those kinds of expectations, you have to make sure there are moments when you give a tip of the hat to the fans. We certainly have those moments placed within the show. But putting on a big green suit and kicking ass with a mop is about as awesome as you think it is!

Were you a fan of the films?

I’m going to be honest—I still haven’t seen them. I know that might make some people gasp! But there’s a reason why I didn’t once I accepted the role. There are very few new shows and musicals that hit the stage in Atlanta. They’ve usually been done in New York first. So it’s always important to me to try to bring my own take on the role and do a recycled impression of an impression of someone else’s take. That’s a huge trap in musicals especially. People listen to the CD so much and that colors their performance. So, the point is, I didn’t want to see the film and then have my performance be shaped by someone else’s. I did watch the trailer though and laughed hysterically—so you can bet once we close this thing that’s the first thing in my queue.

Had you seen or were you aware of any of the previous productions before this one came along?

Yes, we were aware especially of the award-winning Off-Broadway performance in NYC. I listened to the score a few times to get a sense of the music, but then stopped before it got in my head too much!

How did you end up cast in the lead?

Well, this is the same creative team that was behind AVENUE Q. Our excellent director Heidi McKerley (who won the Suzi Award for Best Director for AVE Q) and I have now done 11 or 12 productions together. She was one of the first people to cast me years ago and we have developed quite the resume of kickass musicals at this point. Also the music director Renee Clark (Suzi Award for Best Music Direction for AVE Q) and I have also worked together for years and years. She is an unbelievable talent, and every show she works on is better because of her presence. So I’m sure the working relationships I have with both those two fierce ladies led to their trust in casting me as the lead in this show.

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Don’t drop him! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

You’re two weeks into a scheduled six-week run. How have audiences responded so far? Gotten any feedback from Troma fans yet?

I know I’m supposed to say this, but audiences love the show. No matter if the theater is sold out completely or we have maybe a smaller crowd on a Wednesday, they jump to their feet by the end of the show. I mean jump to their feet. It’s happened every night. We are really proud of what we are doing. The cast is a firestorm of musical theatre rock talent. Don’t believe me? Come watch, you’ll see!

We have definitely gotten some Troma fan feedback. It’s been awesome. They are always satisfied and super happy to take pictures at the end of the night with Big Green Freak.

How would you describe the show to (warn?) fans of musical theater that don’t recognize the title?

Nothing to warn about really. Because it’s a musical, obviously the gore factor has to be toned way down for audiences. But that doesn’t take away from the story and the fun at all, believe me. I think this show is rated PG-13, but a hilarious PG-13. It’s a train. It’s campy, and ridiculous, and hilarious. Everyone leaves smiling. If you don’t leave that way, you were trying not to like it, and in that case, I feel bad for you.

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Toxie comes alive! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

The movies feature absurd, disgusting, hilarious violence. Any chance you rip some punk’s arm off onstage?

Some punk’s arm? How about multiple punks’ arms.

The musical was written by New Jersey natives Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Their last collaboration, MEMPHIS, won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. Bryan wrote the music (and co-wrote the lyrics with DiPietro) during downtime from his day job, keyboardist for another ’80s Jersey juggernaut, Bon Jovi. So is it safe to say the score rocks?

The music is just fun. We have a kicking band. You’ll hear some sick guitar distortion solos and bass, hot keyboard play and insane drum solos.

And this cast can sing. Make no mistake—it rocks.

THE TOXIC AVENGER runs through March 13 at the Horizon Theatre. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets start at $25. www.horizontheatre.com or 404-548-7450 for tickets and info.

The play contains adult language and content, and even though they’d love it, is not recommended for children.

All photos provided by Horizon Theatre and used with permission.

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