It was just three years ago that actor MalMalme came ashore at SpeakEasy after a wild five-week ride in a play that sparked exciting conversations about the nature of history and who gets to tell our stories. Written by Jacklyn Backhaus, Men on Boats told a time-worn tale — the discovery of the Grand Canyon — in a bold new way: with a racially diverse cast of female, trans, gender-fluid, and gender-diverse actors portraying the expedition’s all-white, all-male crew.
Men on Boats was just one notable adventure in MalMalme‘s distinguished and varied 25-year career on Boston’s stages. Recently we caught up with the actor, artistic director, and clown (yes clown!) to see how their passions, despite the pandemic, continue to inform their art.
How have you been spending your time during the quarantine?
I’m grateful that I have been able to continue my work as a healthcare clown with the Laughter League, performing virtually, connecting with patients and families at Boston Children’s and Hasbro Children’s Hospitals. I’m also on the StageSource Board, and active in the Anti-Racism conversations going on in our theater community; specifically, how do we as a theater community come out of this better than we went in. I’m also part of a new group – DRIVE Forward (Diversity, Respect, Inclusion, Voice, Equity) – doing EID work in the healthcare clowning community. I’m also taking the CELC (Cultural Equity Learning Community) courses, as I want to continue my own learning to be a better human. In addition, I am still working on a middle-grade children’s novel, doing the stumbly work of crafting a new theater piece, and trying to keep removing my body from the couch and too much MSNBC. I also feel so fortunate that my spouse loves to cook while blasting show tunes. And I’m so ready to VOTE.
You were a part of SpeakEasy’s New England premiere of Men on Boats (MOB). What did it mean for you to be a part of that show?
I loved being part of MOB. I got to sing, wear an awesome costume, be ornery, jump in and out of a boat, and be with so many fantastic people. Dawn M. Simmons, and M. Sloth Levine, our director and assistant director, created a very fun and safe collaborative space for all of us to play and to develop the boat choreography, which was unique to our production and which I think added layers to the play. There was such great energy in that room!
As a self-identified ‘queer activist,” what has it been like for you as a nonbinary actor in Boston? Are the opportunities increasing with awareness?
We’re in the midst of a re-imagining for theater right now, in part because of this pandemic, this reckoning with white supremacy, and the initiatives underway to invite all of those who have not been in leadership in the theater community to lead. And as a white queer nonbinary person, I think it’s vital for me, and for the future of theater, to find ways to support and amplify BIPOC voices and artists.
As regards opportunities for nonbinary artists, I think Boston can do better; and am grateful that initiatives like StageSource’s Gender Explosion keep the conversation going. I’m who I am as an artist, and as a human. And I will tell my story, to make theater more inclusive for those who come after me.
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an actor.
In junior high school, I took a theater class. Boom! I was in my happy place. Then I was cast in a school production — the role was a Mom and my costume, a dress. In high school, it only got worse — all the productions were very traditional musicals, girls in dresses, etc. And musicals — not for me. I retreated, and played sports. My senior year in college, I took a theater class pass/fail. The same happy feeling. When I graduated, I took the first job I was offered. A retail management position. I felt my soul dying every day. But it forced me to look at my purpose in life. And I so wanted to try performing again. I didn’t want to sit in regret. I started taking stand-up comedy and improv classes, then theater classes, and kept going. Theater was where my heart was. I joined an improv group, and was cast in my first professional production in 1995 (The Well of Horniness, by Holly Hughes), with Triangle Theater, one of the only queer theater companies at the time, which was based in Boston’s South End. I took a very circuitous route, but all those experiences, especially as young queer human at that time, really helped me discover the kind of theater artist I wanted to be. And theater helped me discover who I am.
You are also one of the founders of Queer Soup Theater. Tell us about that company and its work.
Queer Soup was founded in 2002, by several other queer theater artists and me. Our mission was to collaborate with queer artists to develop and produce new works with queer narratives that sparked dialogue and pushed for LGBTQ+ awareness and equality. We always donated a portion of ticket sales to a local social justice nonprofit, held community conversations, and offered Pay-What-You-Can and ASL-interpreted performances. Most of the original Queer Soupers have moved on to other adventures; but early in the pandemic, we had the chance to reunite and read a couple of our works over Zoom, which was a blast. Our current work is The Pineapple Project, a show for kids ages 3-8 that celebrates gender creativity. It was developed by me, Becca A. Lewis, and Renée Farster-Degenhardt. Becca and I are currently doing virtual performances of the show for schools and libraries, and will hopefully be performing it in person again soon. We are also in the early stages of developing a piece that explores gender identity and cancel culture.
Do you feel the work of Queer Soup Theater is more vital in 2020 than it was during the organization’s early years?
When we read our older works over Zoom early in the pandemic (thanks to Apollinaire Theatre), we were a bit apprehensive that they wouldn’t be relevant. Fortunately, and unfortunately, we were surprised at how well they held up. One of the pieces was our second production from 2004, Invasion of Pleasure Valley, a campy, queer spoof of 1950’s mores and sci-fi movies. And our second Zoom night consisted of short plays from our 2007 Lost + Found anniversary series that included pieces about sobriety, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Stories are how we heal and how we explore who we are; and many of the themes in our plays, after hearing them again, were still impactful because they are about humanity. Queer Soup has always been about collaboration, listening, and tapping into the pulse of the communities that we are a part of. We hope to continue to do that, in whatever way makes sense, and keep telling stories that incite dialogue, resonate, and push for change.
You have also been a professional hospital clown for over 20 years. Tell us about your work with Laughter League and why you have stayed with it for so long.
I auditioned for Laughter League as a unique auditioning experience. Much to my surprise, I was hired and started on April 1, 1997. I thought, I’ll do this for a couple of years and then move on to something else. Other than taking six months off when I had cancer, I’ve never wanted to leave. This job, this profession, has become part of the fabric of who I am. It has allowed me to experience parts of myself I never may have otherwise. It makes me more human every time I play as my character, Dr. Mal Adjusted. Using the power of presence, breath, humor, laughter, and music to connect with patients, families, and staff at the hospitals I have the honor to serve, is magical. I hope that I am fortunate enough to keep doing this work for some time to come. One of the patients we know well, an outspoken four-year-old, said it best during a visit a couple of weeks ago: “Toys, clowns, let’s go!”
You are also a cancer survivor. How has that experience impacted your life?
To keep it in context of this moment, it’s been almost 11 years since my treatment for ovarian cancer, and the impact is constantly shifting. I feel far enough away from the diagnosis and treatment that I’ve begun work on a theater piece that explores living in my nonbinary body, and having a very female cancer.
You wear so many hats and have done so much. Is there one role or one accomplishment of which you are most proud?
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and like many queer people, I had to hide who I was. But I made a promise to myself when I was a little queer closeted kid that if I ever got to live my truth, I would do what I could to make the world a better place for those who came after me. And I have dedicated most of my adult life to doing that, through activism, performance, writing, and working with LGBTQ+ youth. There are those who came before me, so I could be here now. There is work to be done, and I’m still here; so I’ll keep showing up and making noise.
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SpeakEasy Stage Company is the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion Resident Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts. This program is supported in part by a grant from the Boston Cultural Council, a local agency which is funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, administrated by the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism, and Special Events.