BWW Interview: Sherry Glaser of OH MY GODDESS! at The Marsh Berkeley Brings the Feminine to Light as the Great Jewish Mother of Us All
Sherry Glaser is bringing her one-woman "Oh My Goddess! A Comedy of Biblical Proportions" to The Marsh Berkeley for a 6-week run. To say she has had an unorthodox career would be an understatement. After spending her formative years in the early 80's San Diego improv scene alongside other young upstarts like Whoopi Goldberg and Kathy Najimy, she shot to prominence with "Family Secrets" which remains the longest-running female solo show in Off-Broadway history. Shortly thereafter, tragedy struck with the disappearance of her husband and creative partner. Stunned by that turn of events, Glaser focused on raising her two daughters while also developing new works and playing smaller venues close to her northern California home. She is now back, feisty and funny and political as ever. BroadwayWorld spoke with her just prior to the start of her run at The Marsh Berkeley. In conversation, she is as warm and outspoken as you would expect. The following has been edited for clarity and length.
How would you describe "Oh My Goddess!" to the uninitiated?
I would say it is a comical and dramatic or expression of the Mother Earth herself. It's like the earth woke up and she's a Jewish mother and she's kind of upset and needs to talk to her children and find out what's happening with her husband, or God.
You debuted the show at the fabled Michigan Womyn's Music Festival back in 1996. That must have been quite an experience.
Yes, it was. I could safely do it naked there! [laughs] Which has always been my dilemma, like "What would she wear?" [laughs again] It was right after the birth of my daughter Lucy that it occurred to me that there was this obsession with "God the father" in the three major religions. How could it be there's no mother in this story? How come the father is the one who created the universe and all his sons begat, begat, begat? It kinda upset me, and when I'm upset, I write comedy.
How has the show developed since then?
Well, as the earth evolves, so does Ma, but also she's not the only one in the show. There's Miguel, a reluctant hero here. He's been in service as a waiter for his whole life and he's searching for purpose and meaning and he becomes the channel for the Great Jewish Mother of Us All. I've been doing him for 20 - 30 years so I took him through every drama, every deep transformation, the death of my father, his reconciliation with the feminine, with the women in his life, he's just learned a lot over the years. When you play these characters and write them - there are a few women who do it these days, like Marga Gomez and Anna Deveare Smith - since I take my own characters from my own experience, it's easy for me to evolve these things. I mean, now Miguel is running for president, and that seemed really natural to me, to sort of have the 2020 race. And so I have freedom and a point of view, this feminine point of view that is so missing from the world that I've got unlimited material and it's kind of renewable, sustainable, and it just deepens over the years.
Why does now seem the right time to revisit it?
Well, I've actually been doing it over the years, kind of underground. When I was [working on] the show back in 1997, that's when the tragedy struck. I don't know if you know that story about my husband?
No, I don't, really.
Well, we had this success with "Family Secrets" and then we wrote "Oh, My Goddess!" We birthed it down in Carmel and were gonna go back to New York because we had that great success. Then my husband vanished, he disappeared off a golf course, the 13th hole at Rancho Canada. Talk about dark comedy. I had two kids, a baby and my nine-year-old, and it kind of threw a wrench in the works, you know? He was my director, my co-writer and it just threw me off. I struggled just to keep going and perform and after a while, I gave up. I said "I can't do this without him and I've got to raise these kids so I've got to settle down." I was asked to do "Oh My Goddess!" in New York, but they wanted 8 shows [a week] and I didn't have child care and I just couldn't do it. This happens to women a lot. And so I kind of stayed at home and wrote more shows and did "Oh My Goddess!" all through California. I ended up growing pot and opening a dispensary in Mendocino and got arrested and wrote a show about that, called "Taking the High Road." So I've been performing all these years, but in little venues.
So I lost everything, that's 23 years ago that I lost my husband. When I moved to Sebastapol, I started coming out a little bit more. I got involved with Debra Giusti the producer of the Harmony Festival, and I was performing at her temple, and feeling like this show has become more relevant. And I did it at the United Solo Festival in New York in 2015 and I won Best Avant Garde, and thought "Oh, this still has relevance." Anyhow, once I settled here and started performing at Deborah's temple, which you know fits 50 people and started overflowing, I thought "I'll reach out. I think I'm old enough now [laughs] to play the earth." So I called The Marsh and said, "Hey! Remember me?" And they said, "Yeah, we remember you. What are you doing? Come on down!"
You've also been pretty heavily involved in political activism, like with the grassroots movement "Breasts Not Bombs." Can you explain what that's all about?
Again, my lifetime goal is to bring the feminine, to get back to the source, to make things better, kinder, more nourishing, and the breast also represents that. It's kind of a symbol of all good things. Back in 2005, that was borne out of the beautiful, alternative tribal feminine lifestyles of Mendocino. It sparked from a protest on the Fourth of July when a friend of mine took off her shirt at a park (little bitty titties, no big deal!) and she was detained. Everyone came and got me, they said "Sherry, our friend is being detained. You've got to do something." Cause I guess they thought I would. And I did! [laughs] I said, "You think that's indecent, wait til you see me take off my shirt!" and so we started fighting this concept that it was indecent exposure, and proved that breasts aren't genitals. Whether it's equal protection under the law, freedom of speech, women have a right to be topless. We did a big demonstration in Sacramento the night before Arnold Schwarzenegger's special erection, I mean election. We got arrested and went to jail, and we sued 'em for violation of our rights. We won and we made law that it is legal for women to demonstrate topless in California; it's political speech, first amendment [rights]. And we won cash prizes, so that was a good day.
I haven't done it in awhile, but I just got a call yesterday from my lawyer who said a client of his was demonstrating topless in Nevada, got arrested and wants to talk to me about how we handled it. So it kind of ripples. It takes a lot of guts to do topless demonstrations and I need a lot more support because my breasts are so big [laughs] that I haven't done it [recently].
I was at the courthouse just a few days ago here in Santa Rosa demonstrating. ICE was in Santa Rosa sweeping the courthouse, and that's illegal, it's a sanctuary. Again, it's like this - it's not an obsession, but it's certainly a habit of mine to stand up, to mother, to care for. Those are the kind of values that I think are really important right now if we're going to get any kind of relief. And it's not so much you have to be a woman to have those. It's not a feminist, it's a feminine principal, and there's where things get a little bit, um, subtle. And in a world with constant yelling and noise, subtlety is kind of a lost art.
Early in your career, you were part of the San Diego improv scene alongside women like Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy & Mo Gaffney. Sounds like an incredibly fertile scene. Was there something in the water there?
Oh, there was! [laughs] San Diego in the early 80's - We were just so ripe and I think it was like a vortex, we were all sucked into it. I was in New York and chose to go to college in San Diego and found all this like you said, fertile ground and did the Hot Flashes with Mo and Robin Samuels. Hot Flashes and Whoopi performed at The Old Globe together, that really gorgeous theater in San Diego, and it was brought to you by Judy the Beauty of The Big Kitchen which was where Whoopi was a dishwasher and I was a waitress. It was this tiny restaurant, but it fed the world, special place. There in Golden Hill is where I met Whoopi. We were young and just trying everything, playing all sorts of characters, and she's like "I'm gonna go make my fortune." And we're like "Yeah, Whoopi, go, go!" She had this beautiful house in the canyon in San Diego and I said "Can I have your house?" and she's like "OK, you can have my house, but if I don't make it, I want it back." And I'm like "Yeah, right - See ya later, you're out buddy!" [laughs] She struggled in San Francisco. At one point, she was gonna come back, and then she decided to go to London and that's where it happened for her. That's where Mike Nichols saw her.
Yes, I was aware of her in the 80's here in San Francisco, but never saw her perform. She caught my attention, though, just from her name.
A great name, right? Yeah, she was doing her one-woman show "Spook Show." Then she got into film and just stopped doing her own stuff. And I was like why? She was so good! She played a German gynecologist and I'll never forget it, Surfer Girl, and of course Fontaine was her junkie. Then, yeah, Kathy & Mo broke off and did their fabulous "Kathy & Mo Show." Anyhow, San Diego, it really was a very special place, and now you've got me all down memory lane here.
Finally, I have to ask you about what is still your best-known work, "Family Secrets," which ran for more than a year off-Broadway. Did you have an inkling at the time that it was going to be a big hit, or were you totally gobsmacked by that?
Yeah, I was young, I didn't know. I was 30, just a kid. I mean the audience reaction to it was really dramatic because everyone was like "I'm not Jewish, but my family's just like that!" and that happened all over the country. People just resonated with it. And also I think that the way I tell the stories is very kind and loving. It's respectful; it makes you feel good. It's very rare to see comedy, or anything these days, that makes you feel good, makes you feel better. And that's what I can do, that's my gift. I can lighten it up, and I've had some tragedy as I just told you, but I can still make comedy, and it's not at anyone's real expense, although I get angry at God, so to speak, or the Father, where the hell is my husband? But I still have this sense of humor. It's like medicine, as we say, laughter. I think if you're going through it, it's not funny, but if you've been through it is funny.
The end of January, I went up to Mendocino cause I'm so loved there and have friends cause I lived there. I did my greatest hits, I did all the characters from "Family Secrets," I did a piece from "The High Road," I did "Oh My Goddess!" and something called "Adventures of a Super Activist Mother" which is the one where I dealt with Breasts Not Bombs, just ten minutes each. And then the narrative was my life in Comptche where I lived in Mendocino County. It really was a beautiful recollection of everything I've done, and if I die in the next - you know - couple weeks or whatever, that's my body of work. I got it, and it's on a little thumb drive. But looking back on it, it's all about bringing the feminine nature to light.
(Photos by Larry Wagner)
"Oh, My Goddess" runs March 6th through April 11th on Fridays @ 8pm and Saturdays @ 5pm at The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA. For information or to order tickets visit themarsh.org or call (415) 282-3055 (Monday through Friday, 1pm-4pm).