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).

mary a la carte2 Curiocity: Local Woman Writes, Stars In Mary A La Carte

(credit: Brooke Nelson)

Q: Tell us about Mary a la Carte – what’s it about and what inspired you to write it?

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.

Comments (9)
  1. Stew Thornley says:

    I’ve seen this show twice, and I’m going again. It’s that good. I think the only other show I’ve ever seen more than once was Jersey Boys.

    1. Sconnie Gal says:

      This show is a blast! I have been to it numerous times and have brought others to the show, all of whom thanked me profusely because they’ve enjoyed it so much. Everyone can relate to it and it’s just an all-around good time. Come with family or a group of friends – you’ll be laughing about it for days. And with some of the things you learn – you might never be boring at parties again!! It’s a GREAT show – don’t miss it!!

  2. Beth Kathan says:

    Love, Love, LOVE this show. I’ll be there again this time because it is always changing!

  3. Josh O. says:

    This show is hysterical!! I can’t wait to see what’s on the menu this year. Mary does a masterful job in relaying just how crazy normal her family is….just like the rest of us. A must see!

  4. Suzanne O'B says:

    These stories are funnier the more you hear them! I apologize in advance to my audience mates. I’ll try to control myself, but chances are I’ll start laughing the moment Mary takes your order. (Sorry – it runs in MY family.)

  5. One of Us says:

    “LOCAL” woman? She’s a Wisconsin native. How long does one have to live in this state before we claim him/her as “one of us”? I know some people that have been here for over 25+ years but will never be called “Minnesotan” – probably because of the color of their skin, sad to say.

    Why do we have this need for validation and a connection to things???

    1. Stew Thornley says:

      Hey, chill. And why bring race into this?

  6. EFFH says:

    Fantastic show. Makes me envious that my family is so dull. Well, perhaps not…In any event, one word sums it up – kielbasa!

  7. kb1542 says:

    Great show – a must see! You will relate to at least one of the stories, if not all of them.

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