When Wisconsin native, Mary Vander Leest saw what the Twin Cities had to offer in theater and beyond — she made the decision right then and there, this would be her new home.
The then-recent University of Wisconsin-Madison grad packed her bags and jumped head first into the theater scene. Well, OK not really.
Fully admitting she’s not much of a risk-taker, she instead took jobs in banking, marketing and public relations but knew full well that acting was just a hop, skip and a jump away.
After a few local community theater gigs, Vander Leest finally decided it was time. In 2004, she wrote and performed Mary a la Carte. The show premiered to a sold-out run and only continues to garner more fans and new audiences. Before her show opens at the New Century Theatre Thursday, Vander Leest was kind enough to tell us a little more about her journey and the show’s incredible run.
Q: Looking at your bio, you’re a Wisconsin alum that moved to the Twin Cities for the theater scene? What was it about our theater offerings that attracted you?
A: The first time I visited the Twin Cities, I attended four shows at four completely different venues: the Guthrie, the U of M, a community center basement and an office building lobby. The scope and variety of theater being produced here was so compelling. I made plans to move here and did, about four months later.
Q: So then once you got to Minnesota, you had a bit of an acting career detour. Tell us more about that.
A: Despite my big plans for stardom, rent got in the way almost immediately. (The monthly obligation, not the musical.) So, as most of my theater friends have done, I got what my mother would call a “real” job. I’ve worked in banking, retail, health care and now, philanthropy. New York isn’t the only place it’s tough to make a living in the theater. But because there’s so much available here, you can be “in” the theater (larger or smaller ones) as much as you want on many levels, from a paid acting job to volunteering as an usher and everything in between. I still enjoy volunteering. It’s a great way to gain access to productions you may not otherwise have experienced.
Q: It had been 15 years since you were on the big stage before you wrote Mary a la Carte, what’s it like to be back?
A: It IS like riding a bike (but at first you keep looking behind you, wondering who stole your training wheels).
Q: Tell us about Mary a la Carte – what’s it about and what inspired you to write it?
A: As you enter Mary’s Home Cookin’ Diner, you’ll receive a menu — each item is a different, true story about my crazy family. I’ll come out into the audience to take your order, prompting another story. Depending on who I engage and what they choose, the show changes every performance. As to what inspired me? I love my family, but they ARE crazy! Everyone thinks theirs is, to various degrees, and that’s what makes my stories so relatable. Often I look down to see people nudging the person next to them, mouthing the words, “YOU did THAT” or “That’s just like mom.”
Q: What makes this a fun show to perform, night after night?
A: Letting the audience determine what story is next keeps me on my toes — I never know what’s coming. I’ll approach someone with a hunch as to what they’ll order, but I’m rarely right. The show also has a fair amount of audience participation and there’s no way to prepare for that. You just have to let it happen and go with it.
Q: Are you looking forward to performing at the New Century Theatre?
A: It’s a wonderful, new downtown space. We’re doing mostly cabaret-style seating, which is perfect for the script and my interaction with the audience. New Century is the latest step in a plan to return arts venues all along downtown Hennepin Avenue, as it was at the turn of the last century. I’m proud that Mary a la Carte is part of that growth.
Q: Who should come see this show?
A: Anyone sixteen or older (there are some mature themes); anyone who has ever had, loved, been embarrassed by or played a practical joke on their family; anyone who wants to laugh a lot, and live vicariously through my stories. Seriously, I’ve lived this, and I’d definitely come to see it!
Mary a la Carte heads to the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s New Century Theatre March 22 to April 15. For tickets and more information, check the website.