Actor, voice-over artist, singer, mother and Scientology survivor, Cathy Schenkelberg is bringing her incredibly successful one-woman shows to the Adelaide Fringe this year. It is hard to believe, sitting down to chat to this vivacious, energetic woman, that she was once depressed, destitute and fantasizing about ending her life.
Winner of Pick of the Fringe at Calgary, Vancouver and Edinburgh, Squeeze My Cans explores Cathy’s journey into and out of, Scientology. A high-level participant in the organization, she is now labelled a “suppressive person”, and admits that, although she wanted to leave in 2005, it took her another five years to finally break free. But what lead her to put together this show about her experiences?
I started doing spoken word in bars and cafes: seven-minute vignettes of spoken word or story-telling. I would post a podcast on Facebook and people would respond to these. One in particular, my friend Sean Grennan, who is a playwright, said I should piece this together and make a solo show. I thought, how do I put 18 years into 60 minutes? But I had to do it. Then I signed up for Fillet of Solo in Chicago (a month of one person shows).
The show has gone from strength-to-strength.
And although its subtitle is “Surviving Scientology”, Cathy is quick to point out that she is not simplistically bashing scientology, but rather telling her story and allowing the audience to make their own minds’ up.
It comes from the perspective, not of a celebrity, or a staff member who signed the billion-year contract: it comes from a single mom. All I was doing was searching for a purpose. I felt like I was being selfish with this acting career. I was successful but it wasn’t filling me. And that’s interesting, because after I got out, the one thing that gave me peace and purpose was taking care of old people and animals.
And as with all good theatre, the basic story has a universality about it: the theme of escaping that which traps you.
This show is an Everyman. It’s a story for everyone. Imagine if you’re in a job you hate, but you need that insurance, so you stick it out for 30 years, you retire, then you die. I have a friend that was in a 17-year abusive marriage. She wouldn’t leave. She wanted him to break up with her. She said she stayed with him hoping he would change. It’s about anything that you feel you’re trapped in.
Like so many people who have left Scientology, Cathy’s exit was long, slow and painful.
I was insulated in Scientology: my agent, my manager, my bookkeeper, my accountant, my friends, my school, my daughter’s school, my daughter’s friends…all of a sudden, that is your world. That’s why it took me five years to leave, because I had to be strategic and I was scared. By the time I left I was on food-stamps. I went to the Church for help and they just said that I was an “ethics terminal”. It was my neighbours, of all denominations, that were leaving groceries and helping me.
Not content with putting on one show during the Fringe, Cathy is putting on two: Squeeze My Cans and Squeeze My Cabaret.
I’ve always been a singer. When I was in the Church, I suggested we do a cabaret, and L Ron Hubbard could be Elvis. I got a “Knowledge Report” written on me for making fun of LRH. Nobody had humour. Previously I’d sung in gay bars, and the church took that from me. And cabaret is something I can do anywhere. I can just say “here are my tracks” and sing. For this show I’ve written some original songs and I’ve parodied others. And I have an alien puppet! I also surprise the audience with a special guest…
This is Cathy’s first trip out to Australia.
Actually, my Field Staff Officer [mentor] was from Australia and he’s still in [the Church]. I wanted to bring the shows out here because I wanted to see Australia and I heard the Adelaide Fringe was fantastic! Also, based on what I knew when I was in the church, there is a lot of Scientology here. I’m doing both shows here, then just the cabaret in Sydney, then back to the States where I’m booked until August.
Cathy emphasizes that the most important thing to her is family. Her father didn’t speak out against the Church because he knew that had he done so, Cathy may well have been forced to “disconnect” from him.
You look at how broken you are, and you think, do I want my child to turn out the same way I did? In essence it’s a redemptive story. It’s an homage to my father: firefighter, raised ten kids, mom was a housewife: the whole nine yards Catholic family. It tells the story of my journey and my relationship with my dad.
This will probably be Australian audience’s only chance to see Squeeze My Cans.
I’m now on my third year, having performed to over 13000 people, all by myself, travelling, doing shows all over the world. I got into Scientology and it took a piece of my life. I got out of Scientology, I wrote this show, and it’s STILL a part of my life and I need to put it to bed.
I’m still broken. I still struggle. Sometimes I go to the dark place, but the dark place used to be thirty minutes- now it’s ten. [The Church] basically took three houses from me, my daughter’s college fund, my IRS and my 401 [American equivalent of superannuation]. But you know what? The time lost is far more hurtful than the money. That’s something I can never get back.
Interview by Tracey Korsten
Both Squeeze My
Cans and Squeeze My Cabaret perform
at Tandanya through February and March.
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