BWW Interview: Storm Large on Revisiting Her Autobiographical Solo Show CRAZY ENOUGH a Decade After Its Acclaimed Premiere
In Portland, Storm Large is practically royalty. She's "Portland famous" -- as a rock star, a member of local band Pink Martini, and a frequent collaborator with the Oregon Symphony. Storm has also made her mark as a cabaret star, a memoirist, and the creator/star of the autobiographical musical CRAZY ENOUGH, which was originally commissioned by Portland Center Stage at The Armory. Premiering in 2009, CRAZY ENOUGH ran for 21 weeks straight and still holds the record as the longest-running and most successful show in PCS history. The show is coming back for a very limited engagement this month.
If you know anything about Storm Large, you know that her impressive credentials tell only part of the story. The phrase "tough childhood" hardly begins to describe her growing up, and the early part of her career was spent studying the practical implications of living by the motto "sex, drugs, and rock and roll." Her reputation as a badass is well-earned.
But it isn't Storm's badassness that propelled CRAZY ENOUGH's success. It's her vulnerability, which was on display the day I interviewed her, which also happened to be the day after Alabama passed the restrictive new abortion law aimed at challenging Roe v. Wade. She was emotional about the direction our country seems to be taking and kept apologizing for not being the joke-and-sex-story-telling person she thought I expected. But she had nothing to apologize for -- I thought she was caring, compassionate, and one of the most authentic people I've ever met.
There isn't room for everything in this article, so what follows is an edited version of our conversation.
The first production of CRAZY ENOUGH was 10 years ago. What does it mean to you to be revisiting the show now, especially since it's opening on your 50th birthday?
SL: It's very ironic, because I give command performances at Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall. I get these incredibly career- and life-affirming requests for my voice. It's f**king awesome. But there is nothing that I've ever done that gets more requests than CRAZY ENOUGH. People want it. They want to see it. They want to buy the rights. They want to film it. They want to make a documentary. They want to make an animated film. I've never gotten more feedback, and they all say the same thing: "It's the most healing thing I've ever experienced" or "It was life-changing for my daughter and me." Part of my wanting to do it, again, is I want that healing, too.
A lot of people have the misconception that it was this catharsis for me. It was not. And writing the book -- it was not catharsis. It wasn't so much navel-gazing, but it's become very clear to me in my recent work songwriting and playwriting and storytelling that I am an artist primarily out of loneliness, out of the lack of love and attention. As a kid, my mom was mentally ill and locked up. My dad was just... I still don't really talk to my dad. I had no real parenting.
In my experience, there are two ways you can react to that. You can say, "F**k you, love isn't real. I'm going to get mine," and you can "f**k you" your way through life and take what you want and what you can and what you think the world owes you. I have that little b***h in the back of my head, but primarily I've been thrust forward as, "Please, someone love me. Please. Please. Please. I can do these things really well. I can f**k."
And that's the way it started: "I can f**k. Please love me." Obviously, that ends badly for most people. "I want to feel like I'm in love. I'm going to get high. Drugs make me feel safe and loved. Am I loved?" No, you're not. Then, rock and roll. Sex, drugs, rock and roll is the actual chronology of my trying to create an environment where I feel loved and like I belong.
The chronology in the play is really the chronology of my seeking to avoid going crazy. The crazy my mom ultimately had wasn't a mental illness. It was early trauma that led to over-medication and over-psychoanalysis and, not incarceration, but some of the places where she was, because they were trying to keep her from killing herself, they'd just lock her up.
But, she had the same thing. She felt unloved and unsafe, as did I. She went about it by trying to die and get people to run to take care of her.
I was like, "I'm going to make people want me. I'm going to demand to be loved and get attention in some way, but not that way." I was trained early that that kind of behavior I associated with being a girl, being sick and small and weak, crying, it's the same crazy.
I want to put to bed the question, does anybody love me? It's still the thing under my bed. That's why I want to do CRAZY ENOUGH again. It's kind of a selfish reason.
Also, "Can I f**king do it?" It almost killed me last time. After the show closed, I was driving down to L.A. with James Beaton, my musical director, and my hair was falling out. I had become severely anemic.
Last time, the financial crisis was happening. We kept the f**king lights on in the theater when everybody was going dark. They extended and extended and extended and extended, and I just kept going and going and going and going. At the very beginning of the run, my long-term relationship ended. I was helping raise a young boy, and I had a sort of family and I was being domestic and cooking and cutting crusts off of sandwiches. Then that was gone.
As almost a compulsion, I was like, "F**king work, because I'm making a difference. I'm making a difference." People were saying: "This show was life-changing. It's the most amazing thing I've ever f**king seen." Everybody was so excited.
But if you watch any videos of that time, I was 15 pounds lighter than I am now. I was homeless, I was living on couches, and I was an alcoholic. There was this bar right on the corner, and every single night, except Monday night when we weren't running, I would be in that f**king bar, eating french fries, and drinking vodka. I would just stare in the middle distance or I would be having a meeting with important directors or producers, and I'd just be on auto pilot. I was so f**king unhealthy.
How will you take care of yourself better this time around?
I actually don't know. I'm hoping that with 10 more years of experience, I'll be a little kinder and little more gentle with myself. More protective, stronger boundaries.
CRAZY ENOUGH is partly about your reaction as a teenager to being told that your mom's mental illness was hereditary. There are a lot of people, young women especially, who feel like their lives are being determined by things beyond their control. Do you have any advice for them?
Not only know who you are, but know who you are not. It's so important to know who you are not. The world is going to tell especially little girls who they can't be and who they should be. As an artist, I was told so much of what I couldn't, what I should, how I should, where I should, with whom I should. Luckily, I'm such a stubborn motherf****r and also a really s***ty liar that I can't fake anything. I couldn't pretend to be cool or pretty or skinny or like a normal girl. I couldn't do the things that were supposedly prescribed for my ultimate success.
When we're little, we are at the mercy of adults, because they're supposed to be looking after us, feeding us, educating us, and setting examples. I know some amazing parents and some powerful people that are f**king saintly and awesome. I borrow them as parental people and lean on their stewardship and their experience.
But little girls, especially now, are being controlled and denied and kept ignorant and unsafe. They hear, "We aren't going to protect you, but you need to know better. You are dangerous and in danger." That's b******t. You have absolute providence over your own body, over your own mind.
So, know who you are not. You are not bad. You are not dirty. You are not at fault. You're perfect. Trust your inherent good. Trust your gut. Trust yourself. Be vigilant in protecting yourself, educating yourself. Hope that people have your best interest in mind, but understand that many won't.
And f**king vote. Your voice matters. Your thoughts and feelings f**king matter. If there are people in lesser places than you, protect them and lift them up. Help each other.
So, will there be a movie, a documentary, an animated film?
I want CRAZY ENOUGH to live on stage a couple more times, but I'm not comfortable giving it up to an interpretation. In a way, it's being protective of my mom. One of those things that I was so scared about when I wrote the book was of how cruel I was in protecting myself from her and how she couldn't help what she had become. She couldn't help it. She was really sick and really sad and at the mercy of all these doctors. I hated her, and I wasn't nice. Part of it was, "I am not going to f**king be you. So much so that I am going to abuse you at every opportunity verbally and by denying you what you want, which is me. You can't have me. I am not your daughter. You will not see me. You will not know where I live."
That was a lot of my adult life before she died. That was the only thing I knew to do to protect myself, and so when I wrote the book, I'm like, "People are going to read this and be like, 'What a f**king a**hole, a scumbag. What a cruel person.'"
I did a panel with Sheila Hamilton on mental health. They asked me, "What was your experience of alienation and bigotry against people with mental health issues?" I was like, "Me. Me finding my mother on the floor. Had a bunch of pill vomit on the sink. She was naked. I told her to get the f**k up and get dressed. 'You're making a fool of yourself,' and closing the door. That was me. I did that." I was 13, 14. Maybe too young to know better, but old enough to know that that was heartless.
It'd be really easy to make her look like a bad person, to minimize her, to make her a caricature of someone with Munchausen, basically loving being sick, loving the attention. When she found out the world record for how many personalities one could ever have, she doubled it. "Oh, I'm going to be written up in a medical journal." That was her thing. It would be very easy to minimize that in a caricature, and that's not fair. She was just abused and raped for the first five years of life.
I wouldn't trust somebody with her story. I mean, f**k, I was her daughter and I wasn't kind. Maybe I'm being too precious about it, but leave her in peace, I guess.
What's next for you?
I'll write another book about being a middle-aged woman touring musician. There's a lot of us out there, a lot of them really famous, but some of us aren't. I mean, there's all these hilarious stories. There's some sad and scary stories, but always there's a story every couple of days when you're on the road and you're living in airports and buses and you're in front of thousands of people all the time. It's a weird life. I think for non-artists, it's a fascinating peek into what it's actually like.
I've seen so many attempts in television and film to capture what it's really like, and it's all this b******t. It's so over-simplified. No one captures the boredom. No one captures the tedium. No one captures the hilarity in the simple moments. They're just trying to catch the ODs and the interviews and the TV and the blowjobs and the crowd-surfing and the songwriting where it just spontaneously happens. They don't see the tears and the sadness and the loneliness and the f**king bone-crushing boredom that drives you to drink and do drugs and f**k weird people. You're like, "This is going to be so weird, but it's going to be a great story," kind of thing. Seriously. I almost f**ked two Vatican guards when we were on tour with Pink Martini.
[cue the promised sex story]
We were in Rome with a day off. We heard that the Pope was in Rome. When he's in Rome on Sundays, he gives a Mass at the Vatican, and we were like, "Oh my god. We're going to get blessed by the Pope." We all hoof it to the Vatican. It's July. Baking hot, but you have to wear sleeves and cover your legs. We get there and there's all kinds of tourists in shorts and s**t. I had on a Cookie Monster shirt and paisley bell-bottoms. I looked like a f**king drug dealer from Woodstock.
We get there. It's boiling hot. The Pope comes out, and he starts blessing us. I'm like, "Holy s**t, we're being blessed by the Pope. I feel so different. I feel better. Oh my god, this is amazing." People are all around, in wheelchairs. Robert Taylor, who plays trombone here, also who's in Pink Martini, he's like, "You've got some fans over there." I looked; there's these two huge Vatican cops. They weren't the Swiss Guard. They were like rent-a-cops with f**king swords. They were huge guys, and they were staring at me. I'm like, "I must look like a perp." I saw a family posing for pictures with kids, so I got in line to pose for a picture with the giant Vatican cops with the big gold buttons. Huge Serbian guys. Big. Handsome.
I get over to them, and we're taking a picture. Robert has my phone and he's standing a little bit away from us. They put their arms around me, one grabs, not my a**, but the meat of my lower back and lifts... I am not small...lifts me towards him and into my hair goes, "You are so beautiful. Where are you from?" I'm like, "America." The other one grabs the meat on my other flank and pulls me towards him. He goes, "I want to know you. What is your name?"
But then, my tour brain kicked in. I go, "I might die, but I should f**k these guys, because when am I going to get the chance to say the Pope blessed me and within five minutes, I was having a bro-tisserie with two dudes with swords?" I was like, "I should f**k them. I should f**k them." Robert's like, "We need to get you back to the hotel." I'm like, "Can we bring..." [pointing at the guards]. He's like, "No!" I'm like, "Come on, they have swords." I'd be like, "Leave the swords on." He's like, "No." He's dragging me away. They're like, "Where are you going?" I'm like, "We're at the..." [miming Robert putting his hand over her mouth and pulling her away].
I'll leave you with that.