Stage Interview: Eclectic Storyteller Cyndi Freeman Comes Home in “And I Am Not Lying Live”

“Why has it taken so long for me to come back home? I don’t know. I have been thinking about it for years and it just never quite seemed like the right time until now.”

By Bill Marx

Cyndi Freeman as Cherry Pitz. Photo: Leland Bobbe.

Some stage performers start their careers in Boston and vamoose after their rookie failures and successes, never to return. Flying the coop is understandable, but there are those local thespians who, after they exit town, leave you wondering over the years—how have they developed their stage talents? It has taken over a decade, but Cyndi Freeman is coming back home (courtesy of WBUR) in the show And I Am Not Lying Live at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge, MA on September 13th.

I will be good to see Freeman again because, after her work in the ’80s and ’90s with Planet Girl and her one-woman performance pieces (I Kissed Dash Riprock), she has put together a striking career in New York, creating and performing in storytelling-based variety shows, innovative, catch-as-catch-can amalgamations of yarn-spinning, music, and sideshow antics that smooch together confessional narrative, vaudeville, and burlesque. At the Middle East, she will be appearing with a quartet of other veteran storytellers—Dawn Fraser, Adam Wade, Brad Lawrence, and Jeff Simmermon.

From what I can glean of Freeman’s contribution to And I Am Not Lying Live, her signature combination of sexuality, confession, and farce is moving into deeper emotional territory. She has become an actress of many (maybe not a thousand) faces—her curvaceous female-to-the-max personae include Wonder Woman and the glamorous vamp Cherry Pitz, the inspirational tassel-spinning center of the Hotsy Totsy Burlesque troupe, whose upcoming New York shows are Cherry Pitz: Vampire Hunter, A Charlie Brown Burlesque Thanksgiving, and Hotsy Totsy Tribute to the Star Wars Holiday Special!

I sent Cyndi some questions via e-mail—here are her answers.

Arts Fuse: You are coming into town for a show called And I Am Not Lying Live. What is the evening like?

Cyndi Freeman: And I am Not Lying Live is a storytelling show with elements of variety entertainment thrown in to shake things up. The Boston show features the founding member of the And I Am Not Lying troupe, Jeff Simmermon, and the two co-producers of the show, Brad Lawrence and myself, plus we are bringing our good friends, Adam Wade and Dawn Fraser.

We present stuff that we enjoy. We are influenced by storytellers that resonate with us as well as by variety performers that tickle our fancy. In this show, we have selected a great bunch of stories dealing with a broad array of subjects, yarns told by fun and funny people who have a solid knack for the form. Plus we have the Boston Typewriter Orchestra banging out some tunes to add that extra element that makes us more than your average storytelling show.

Storyteller Cyndi Freeman in AND I AM NOT LYING LIVE. Photo: Ryan Collard.

When promoting a show, credits are an important selling point, so let’s get that out of the way. We are considered one of New York’s most innovative and eclectic storytelling-based shows. Our storytellers have appeared on This American Life and the Moth Podcast. They have won multiple Moth story SLAMS and they have been onstage with Amy Poehler at the UCB Theatre in New York and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. And I Am Not Lying has enjoyed audience and critical success in Washington DC, Philly, and at SXSW in Austin, where we were seen by WBUR who, in turn, chose to help us out by presenting us to the Boston audience.

To get a feel for our sensibility you can visit our blog.

AF: Although you are in New York now, you spent a number of years performing in Boston. Your hometown is Newton. What memories do you have of acting here? I believe your one-person shows Greetings From Hollywood and I Kissed Dash Riprock premiered here, though I could be wrong. And why has it taken 10 years for you to perform in the city?

Freeman: What memories do I have of Boston; goodness, it is where I found my voice.

I remember a lot: doing musicals in the basement of the Elliot Church in Newton Corner with a youth community theater program and being so shy that I would bomb at auditions in high school, and thus rarely get cast. Because of that stage fright I chose (at age 15) to take professional acting classes at the Lyric Stage—where I wrote a monologue that three years later (at age 18) booked me a slot on an HBO TV show entitled Campus Comedy: The Future Kings and Queens of Comedy. But the show’s producers rewrote the piece in such a way that it made no sense. I bombed so completely—while being filmed for national television—that my Dad was never able to see me perform comedy live again. He would only watch me perform on video where there was no risk of watching his youngest daughter fail.

And that is just up to age 19.

I was at Emerson College during the stand-up comedy boom of the early ’80s. I took comedy writing from two amazing teachers, comics Mike MacDonald and Denis Leary. I hung out at stand-up clubs every night and received most of my arts education from this scene rather than in college.

I worked at the Mystery Café doing interactive dinner theater for 10 years and credit this experience for what finally got me over my shyness. It also taught me how to work a crowd: everything I use in creating and hosting burlesque shows comes from this. In fact, it was at Mystery Café that I received my first professional positive review. It was from you in 1988.

I worked a bit in legit theater in town, Triangle Theater, Back Alley Theater, Merrimack Rep, B.U. Playwrights’ Theater, and a stint as an understudy at the Huntington Theater.

Then I moved to LA, which was just not my cup of tea. In LA, during every project I was involved with the cast and crew were angling on how the job at hand would lead to bigger and better things. From this I learned that the luxury of performing in a city like Boston, which is not a show-biz company town, is that the shiniest thing is always the project you are involved with at the moment and the crowd you are playing to right then. That is what’s important. There is integrity to that, an integrity that LA lacked, and I missed it desperately. So I came home to Boston and continued to work in legit theater, but I also started writing my own material, shows that combined what I had learned in theater and stand-up. Lacking a place to present this work, I created a troupe with several colleagues, we called it Planet Girl, and it was there that I found that my passion for creating the words was stronger than my desire to simply be on stage.

I started writing one-woman shows (Greetings from Hollywood & I Kissed Dash Riprock) and the response from the audience was palpably different. After a show, I would not only get compliments on my talent or my writing, I would also get people waiting for me backstage, wanting to talk to me about their own lives, needing to share with me their personal stories. The solo work and confessional shows created a dialogue with the crowd, a sense of community that was just so warm and human. I took these shows out of Boston to New York, London, The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and Amsterdam.

Then I moved to New York, mostly because I needed to grow, Boston is a warm place and a friendly place, but I knew if I was to continue learning I needed to move out of my comfort zone. It broke my heart, but I needed to step out. New York may be a company town, but unlike LA, it is a town that also has a vibrant experimental arts scene and it was exactly where I needed to be.

Why has it taken so long for me to come back home? I don’t know. I have been thinking about it for years and it just never quite seemed like the right time until now. In fact, one of the reasons why I am happy to be co-producing And I Am Not Lying Live—the storytelling and variety show—is that my co-producers Brad Lawrence (also my husband) and Jeff Simmermon share my desire to take what we have created in New York and to bring the fun out into the rest of the country.

Cyndi Freeman as her favorite superheroine — Wonder Woman. Photo: Burke Heffener.

AF: How does And I Am Not Lying Live fit in with your earlier shows? Most of them dealt with autobiographical material, usually taking it in a satiric direction.

Freeman: I think that what I am doing with And I Am Not Lying Live is an evolution of what I was doing with my earlier shows. When I discovered the storytelling scene in New York, it was like coming home. I was doing creative memoir in a bubble, now I became one of many, and a number of my colleagues are so wonderfully gifted. I learn something about performing and audiences at every show, but what’s even more fun is learning about and from my fellow performers. Storytelling is an art form that builds community, a community of smart, thoughtful, and interesting people.

Comedy is big in the storytelling scene, but we are not doing stand-up. The goal of stand-up is to make the audience laugh; the goal of storytelling is to bring the audience somewhere cool, or interesting, or not so cool, and the humor comes from the fact that smart people tend to be funny. Besides, if you want to tell a dark story without everyone listening wanting to run out and slit their wrists once you have finished, it is probably a good to idea to add some levity to the presentation.

AF: Besides finding the comedy in reality, you have had a keen interest in fantasy. One of your recent shows Wonder Woman: A How To Guide for Little Jewish Girls deals with “a little suburban Jewish girl obsessed with Wonder Woman who becomes a glamorous burlesque Queen in NYC.” What is the appeal of superheroines for you? They are also an inspiration for your recent burlesque shows as well.

Freeman: The superhero genre was created in the late ’30s out of the ashes of the Great Depression and on the cusp of World War Two (and mostly by first generation, Jewish American artists). It came from a very pure place; it was a gut response to the evil that was gaining power in the world. The fantasy is that there are people with super powers who can defeat the evil. That hope is what drives the popularity of superheroes. The form resonates strongly with people of all ages and backgrounds, and that is a comforting reality: it is proof that people in general want to believe in truth and honor and benevolence.

Wonder Woman is the icon that I relate to most. She lives in my psyche, reminding me that it is okay to believe in goodness, and that you can be both strong and beautiful. Many of my colleagues in burlesque are also huge superhero fans and their acts are tributes to their favorite heroes and or villains, which is why my burlesque troupe (Hotsy Totsy Burlesque) thought it fun to create a theme night for superheroes for our last show in August. If you want to see my Wonder Woman act—it is one of my biggest, crowd-pleasing signature pieces—the video is below. (Warning: There will be tassels.)

AF: How did the character Cherry Pitz (Inside Cherry Pitz is the title of one of your one-woman shows) and the Hotsy Totsy Burlesque come about? What is the appeal of burlesque in the twenty-first century? It seems to be making a comeback . . .

Freeman: Cherry Pitz is a character that first came about at the Mystery Café. It was a show called Death and Taxes and she was named Trixi. I did the show for about 9 months. But I loved the character, so much that when the show ended I changed the name to Cherry and I started doing stand-up as her in the late ’80s. Thing is, she didn’t go over in mainstream rooms, but the kitsch quality of the material killed in gay clubs. So I have had her in mind for years, trying to find a home for her. I felt like a drag queen trapped in a woman’s body until I found the burlesque scene in New York. Originally Cherry was only going to be a host—I was not really interested in strip tease—but then I tested positive for the BRCA 2 genetic mutation (AKA the breast cancer gene), and my doctors suggested a double mastectomy as a precaution. Instead, I decided it was time to flash the crowd. Actually this episode will be what part of And I Am Not Lying Live will be about.

Hotsy Totsy Burlesque is my ongoing, monthly burlesque troupe. And New York’s only ongoing, burlesque soap opera. My co-producer Joe The Shark and I wanted to bring a more theatrical feel to the burlesque stage, so each show is a mini-comic-melodrama, with a lot of audience participation thrown in for good measure. The end result is a heightened experience for the crowd as they get sucked into the ridiculous story lines and cheer us on in resolving whatever conflict we have created for the show.

The appeal of burlesque is that it is sex positive. All bodies are beautiful, and sex is simply fun.

AF: How has your appearances on Cable TV (HBO, Comedy Central, and Showtime) changed your performing style? You remain dedicated to the stage.

Freeman: I am always happy to do the corporate thing. But as I first learned in my dealings with HBO at age 18 (and relearned many times since), you have no control in the “Big Hollywood” scene. I am always happier with the small, live shows, where I get to say what I want without having to bend to some other agenda.

AF: What are the challenges of a career that combines storytelling and burlesque—one concentrates on words, the other on physicality?

Freeman: For me, they perfectly balance each other out; all sides of my artistic temperament get expressed.

AF: You have mentioned that you are over 40—has aging influenced your shows at all?

Freeman: It is not so much about getting older as it is about finding something new in your work every day. I think pursuing my dreams keeps me looking and feeling younger than my years. I turn 48 this month.

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