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BWW Interview: Mary Goggin of RUNAWAY PRINCESS Shares Her Unlikely Journey on MarshStream's 'Solo Arts Heals'

The actor and playwright survived a harrowing youth to ultimately find a life in the theater

BWW Interview: Mary Goggin of RUNAWAY PRINCESS Shares Her Unlikely Journey on MarshStream's 'Solo Arts Heals'
Actor & Playwright Mary Goggin
(Photo by Jeffrey Mosier)

Mary Goggin has quite a story to tell in her play Runaway Princess, and perhaps the most astonishing thing is that it's all true. She left home at 13 to escape her strict Irish Catholic upbringing, then spent years in drug addiction and prostitution before becoming sober and finding her true calling as an actor, and ultimately emerging back into the light of survival, motherhood and daily joy. Laced with an uncommon blend of brash humor and understated pathos, Runaway Princess received three awards at the United Solo Festival 2018 in New York City (Best Storyteller, Solo Critics Choice, Best Seller) as well as the Best Actor Award at the Galway Fringe 2019 and the Fringiest Award at the Baltimore Fringe 2019.

On Wednesday, February 17th at 7:30pm PST, Goggin will appear on the Marshstream Solo Arts Heal series to present excerpts from the play and discuss how she overcame the pain, struggle and loss to discover her own resilience and pursue a blissful life. For further information, visit www.themarsh.org/marshstream. The episode will also be archived and available to watch later on The Marsh's YouTube channel.

I spoke with Goggin earlier this week from her home base in the Bronx. Ever the dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, she is gutsy, warm and brutally honest. She also appears to have somehow survived her painful past without an ounce of self-pity, or the need to moralize or proselytize. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The story you tell in Runaway Princess is so extreme that I've found it hard to talk about without sounding like I'm sensationalizing the material. So - How do you describe the show?

Well, it's true, but it sounds unbelievable. It is basically my story, which I wrote because I survived the story and it had to be passed on. I just had to write it. It's basically a story of a little girl that ran away from home when she was 13, shot heroin, and became a hooker. And that's not sensationalizing it. The most descriptive word that I get in reviews is "riveting" and I believe that's because it sounds like it's unbelievable. Like I've had a woman [in the audience] say, "Oh, no, she's gonna die!" - and I'm standing right there.

It touches so many areas. It starts in the famine in Ireland. My parents were born in Ireland, and they're amazing, hard-working parents, just not very affectionate or emotional. If there was a feeling in the room, kill it. You know? And so I ran away and found a place where there were older kids, and it was the first time I really felt like I belonged. I ran away to get what I needed, and the message is that the scary thing is, if we minimize and normalize not talking about emotions, which are a life-driving force, bad things happen. That's really the crux of it.

If you're an Irish girl, the most horrendous thing you can do is get pregnant, be an unwed mother. I don't know if you're familiar with all these babies they found in Ireland, the Magdalene Sisters. They [my parents] kept sending me to Ireland, to the convents. Had I not been born in New York, I would have been in one of those laundries.

I was a battered woman and a junkie, and I started as a call girl in New York, and then they sent me back to Ireland, and I wound up in a house of detention in New York, and they sent me to Synanon, in Santa Monica. Synanon was founded by this guy who was in AA and it was a very popular destination to send New York junkies in the 60's. It was this beautiful hotel, right on the beach. You go in and it's this huge, cavernous living room with pillars and windows looking at the ocean, and there's at least 60 or 70 junkies on couches in the lobby with buckets vomiting. It was unreal. [laughs] And I was there for five years. They actually bought a paint factory in San Francisco as one of their locations, and I lived there for a while, on 26th Street or something like that.

The show is really-in-your face, but what I get from other people is that you can't look away, and I've heard people say that it's life-changing. Because it's about addiction, it's about battered women, it's about parenting, it's about sharing secrets, but it's about our humanity. We all have faults.

What made you decide to turn your story into a theater piece?

I've been sober 33 years, and took care of my mom for 8 years, she had Alzheimer's. After she died, I inherited some money and I said, "I've just gotta write this, take the time and do it."

When I was going to meetings in early sobriety, I would talk about being a hooker, and people would say [whispering], "Sshh, you don't have to talk about that!" And my sponsor, very wise, she's still my sponsor 33 years later, she said, "You talk about whatever it is you need to talk about to heal." And when I did, it gave other people permission to talk about their secrets. And with this show, I've gotta tell ya - it's the most amazing thing. I have people come up to me after the show and tell me their biggest, deepest, darkest, dirtiest secrets, because I'm safe. And I guess they say, "Well, if she did all that, she's not gonna judge me." [laughs] That is such an honor, and why I know now this is my mission in life. I just intuitively knew I needed to write this story.

My family will not see it because the way they feel like my mother is perceived. My relatives are Irish so it's [in a thick brogue] "Oh no, I won't be seein' that, thank you!" I play different characters and I play my mom and my dad, and you know pimps, and all kinds of people. I learned so much about myself and learned about character work, cause I have the best director, Dan Ruth. He has a show, A Life Behind Bars, and he does a lot of amazing character work.

When you were developing the piece, how did you navigate the line between being honest and sort of oversharing?

Well, a reviewer from Galway said it's told with no self-pity; it's just matter-of-fact. The only reason I could do that is because I've had a therapist for like 30 years, and it's resolved. There's nothing worse than seeing an actor get onstage and work out their whatever it is onstage. This isn't that. And it's funny! Like there's a line, "This is how you choose a pimp in the life, in case you ever need to know!"

When you were at your lowest point, what got you sober?

My daughter. I'd lost her once and I was going to lose her again when she was 9. I was being evicted, I was losing my daughter, I was losing a job I had, and it wasn't just that it was happening, it was happening again. I was on the phone with the Battered Women lady, and she wanted to send me away. My daughter looked at me and said, "Mommy, you can't go away. You're all that I have." And for some reason, that was it. That was "Okay, you know what? I am going to try and just do what I'm told. And if it doesn't work, I will just be a bag lady, be homeless again, and hopefully die as soon as possible." That was that moment. And I completely did what I was told.

The thing about being an addict or a drunk is that the shame can actually stop you from getting sober or clean or whatever. Because if I'm not high or drunk, if my feelings aren't deadened, then I would have to actually look at what I did. That I would have to look at that I'm a monster. And how could I ever do that? I would go insane.

That's a whole other issue I work with, alcoholic mothers with children, which is the most shameful, horrible situation to be in. It's such a stigma, and this show is so anti-stigma. You know when a mother gets sick, you go to the hospital, somebody watches your children if you're unable to do that. But if you're sick and you're an alcoholic, and you have to drink, what do you do with your children? You don't do anything because you're a bad person, cause you're garbage.

You didn't discover you had a talent for acting until later on. How did that come about?

I was going on these retreats for recovering alcoholic women in this Jesuit monastery. They had one-on-ones with the nuns, but they were non-Catholic - I have big issues with anything Catholic. So it was a nun in rehab that was my counselor. Anyway, I walked in her office and sat down and she said, "Are you an actress?" And I looked at her, and I said, "Yeah, right. I wish!" And then I realized that I could do anything I wished. I started doing community theater and then I did The Artist's Way and I got a scholarship to Marymount Manhattan, to the theater department. I was acting for 20-something years before I wrote this show.

You had a small but key role in one of my favorite films, Little Children. You were one of the moms in that intense scene where the pedophile is discovered at the local pool. What was it like filming that?

Omigod! I was a snotty, wealthy, kind of a woman, and I had the most important line in the whole film: "My god, it's him; he's in the pool!" Todd [Field] is a really great director. You don't know about a film really - I didn't realize how deep it was until later. It was such a good film, though.

Your early life was, shall we say, pretty colorful. I don't want to romanticize that, but does your life today seem dull in comparison?

[laughs and pauses] That's a really good question... Um, I did a lot of time and it was colorful and... it was a huge adventure, running in all these places. When I look back on it, I'm just like, "What was I thinking?!" But what I really always wanted was an adventure, and now it's an internal adventure. Do you know what I'm saying? I've been back in New York since '88, staying in one place and having an internal adventure, but not running. It's exciting - it blows me away! I'm so grateful that this show has taken off and it's helped so many people already. To me, that's what life is really about now - giving. And that makes me happy.

And the best part - I was ostracized by my family and nobody wanted to speak to me, and then I took this show to Ireland and there was this whole thing. My family here told them [my Irish relatives] not to see it, and the last night of the show there, they all showed up and they loved it. It was as if I got to tell my side of the story, in Ireland, like in the root of where this all came from. It was amazing, because I always think of the Irish being not emotional, and it's just not true. They were blown away, cause Irish people don't talk about their feelings. So - that was more than an amazing experience for me. That's an adventure, you know?! That's the biggest one.


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