Photo by Carol Rosegg
In her one-woman show, Mary Pat Gleason uses humor to heal
By Scott Harrah
Stopping Traffic, written and performed by Mary Pat Gleason, is anything but the typical one-woman show. Its a funny but often poignant first-person account of her battle with bipolar disorder while working as an actress and writer in New York and Hollywood. In it, Gleason, whose credits include films like Traffic and TV hits like Desperate Housewives, relives her numerous mental breakdowns, sleepless nights, hallucinations (such as believing she had the ability to stop L.A. traffic), and nightmarish visits to mental wards. Much like her family, all of whom are involved in medicine, she brought her witty and inspirational narrative to the stage because she wanted to help people. Says Gleason, My belief was that the theater does heal. Sometimes people in the audience see things on the stage that they are not able to talk about that theyve experienced, or its a forbidden subject in the family, and it opens up a conversation for them. We caught up with Gleason a few days before her inspirational show opened Downtown at the Vineyard Theatre to chat about how she overcame insurmountable odds to become the happy working actress and writer she is today, what she loves about the current New York theater scene, and the ways the city has changed since she first moved here in the 1970s.
Your show is especially inspirational for actors. What do you think they can learn from the experiences you discuss in the show?
Whats wonderful for other actors is this: The truth is enough. I think so frequently in life people alter the truth to make the story more interesting. In one-person shows, the subject matter is peoples own personal experiences or an incident that they went through, but I think its important for artists to look around and know that everyday life is dramatic and interesting. People can get catastrophic [medical] diagnoses or an illness that completely alters their life, and its important for people to know that others have had that experience, and that they are happy and they are having a good life. I really fought hard for the opportunity to do this [work as an actor with bipolar disorder].
Why use humor to talk about such a painful experience?
One of the people I began working with was Michael Patrick King, who wrote [many episodes of]Sex and the City. Michael has been a dear friend of mine since I was 21 or 22 years old. Michael and [director] Lonny Price have got to be two of the funniest people on this planet. Whenever I would start to tell a story that was scary, or depressing or frightening, Michael would literally scream at me, Dont scare me! And I said, Michael, there are people out there that are scary. And he said, I dont want to hear about them from you... you can make me laugh.Thats what I need. Theres no point for you to go onstage and scare me, but not many people can walk onstage and make us laugh. Both Michael and I and Lonny and I agree that Norman Cousins is right. If you can laugh at something, it loses its power over you. If you can laugh about it and talk about it, you can heal.
How did you initially conceive the idea for this show?
I started to tell these stories privately to friends. They laughed and said, Oh, my God, Mary Pat, Ive never met anyone who could make me laugh about this stuff. And then there were my doctors. Because of the way insurance works, I had to see a lot of them. The doctors that I met said, Mary Pat, youre so funny. You should tell other people this. And the fact that you remember [manic episodes] is stunning because most people go into a fugue state or a blackout and they cant quite remember what happened. The doctors kept telling me, We cant figure out why you can remember. We finally determined that maybe it was because I was a professional actor [and] when things happened to me, my actress state of mind kind of stayed alive and watched what was going on so that I could record it accurately.
What has been the most healing aspect of talking about your illness onstage?
It gives me clarity. I began to realize that some of these episodes [happened] because of things I was taught as a child or because I believed that God punishes us. I got to go after that and heal some of that stuff. The best part is that Im actually standing there doing this. The doctors said, We dont know how youre going to be able to repeatedly, night after night, talk about the episodes and not have one yourself. The truth is, its been delightful, and people have been enjoying it, but it was a process. I had to go to everybody mentioned in the show and ask if I could use their names and that really helped because Im not making up people.
Did you see any one-woman shows here in New York that inspired you to write Stopping Traffic?
The absolute impulse for doing it was years ago when I saw Lily Tomlin do The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on Broadway. Tomlin was absolutely the groundwork for this show. I think shes a genius. I also had an opportunity to work on the film Soap Dish with Whoopi Goldberg [who has written one-woman shows for the stage and TV]. My friend Mary Annwhom I talk about in the show and I were playing small parts in the movie. Mary Ann told Whoopi, Mary Pat has won an Emmy for writing. Whoopi turned to me and said, The only reason why Im standing here and youre standing there is that I write. Why arent you writing? That went like an arrow to my heart and I thought to myself that one day Whoopi Goldberg would come and see a show that I have done and Id say, Whoopi, Im writing. [Laughs.]
Have you seen any shows lately in New York that you particularly liked?
Doubt just knocked my socks off. I love John Patrick Shanley. I just think that he is a wonderful guy, and hes got that Irish thing thats full of poetry and pain and its beautiful. I also have dear friends that are in The Drowsy Chaperone. That show could not be more fun, and theres that dear guy Bob Martin depicting all the people who sit quietly in their apartments and have been thrilled by the theater because it has enriched their lives. I also saw The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Its brilliant because Martin McDonagh has things to say about the kind of people who perpetuate terrorismthings that nobody else would dare say. Hes really saying, Theyre idiots.
You talk in the show about moving to New York from Minnesota when you were in your 20s. How do you think the city has the city changed since you first moved here?
I live in Los Angeles now; thats my home. Im kind of here visiting. I arrived here in the spring. I would bow to the throne of Giuliani for all theyve done with this city. Central Park is the most glorious Ive ever seen it, and I was here from 1977 to 1986. I came now and said, Oh, my God, who got a hold of this city? Its beautiful. It seems that people are making a concerted effort to put flowers in their windows. And the subwaystheyre just beautiful. The area Im in, at the Vineyard Theatre in Union Square, could not be more beautiful. Its a shopping mecca, with wonderful musicians [in the streets].
Stopping Traffic, written and performed by Mary Pat Gleason and directed by Lonny Price, is playing at the Vineyard Theatre (108 East 15th Street, between Union Square East and Irving Place) through June 25. (212-353-0303; www.Vineyardtheatre.org.)