By Medha Marsten, Artistic Development Fellow
Erma Bombeck was one of the most successful columnists in America. She was syndicated in over 900 newspapers and was a best-selling author. She appeared as a correspondent on Good Morning, America for twelve years. However, for many people, she was just that funny lady our mothers liked. Or if you are of a younger generation, maybe you have never heard of her. During previews I sat down with actress Barbara Chisholm to talk about this witty woman and what it is like to become her onstage.
What attracted you to this project?
There are two avenues that made this a dream job for me. One is the creative team that was involved. I had such an extraordinary experience working with Peggy and Allison and David on Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins that, given the opportunity to be in the room with the three of them again, I would probably leap at it, no matter what the subject matter was. That said, they would never pick subject matter that wasn’t great because that’s who they are. Peggy and Allison are so committed to women’s voices and gender parity and equality that it’s going to always be the foundation of the work that they generate. And David is one of the most incisive, insightful, deft, careful, kind and supportive directors I’ve ever worked with. On a personal note, it’s incredible to be at Arena Stage, where I saw my very first professional play as a kid. It just feels like a full circle!
Having worked with Allison, Peggy and David before, how would you describe your collaborative process?
The most extraordinary thing to me about the team is how everyone’s voice is valued. It’s exceptional. That’s where I think you get the best work, particularly when you have a new piece that is being built. Certainly Peggy and Allison had done months and months, probably years, of work before we walked into the rehearsal room, but there’s still so much that you can’t know until you start really working on the piece.
The respect that everyone in the room has for everyone involved is exemplary and it makes you feel valued. It makes you feel that the best idea is always going to win. It doesn’t matter who comes up with it, but the best idea is the one we’re going to go with. And we’re going to get a lot of ideas because there are so many smart people in the room.
What was your introduction to Erma Bombeck and her writing?
I was very familiar with her as a writer. My mom was a devotee. My mom had her books and we absolutely had her columns on our refrigerators. I was very familiar with who she was, but it was from that distance of, “that’s that writer my mom likes.” I knew she was a funny writer, but it wasn’t a particularly personal relationship. I had a wide understanding of her, but not a deep appreciation of her as a writer.
I have a very vivid memory of a column of hers that has stuck with me since I read it in 1986. Before we started this, I was telling Peggy and Allison about it and they didn’t remember that column and, of course, they’ve read everything a million times, so not only wasn’t it one of Erma’s greatest hits, it wasn’t even a deep cut on the album. I think it just disappeared, but it really resonated with me and I’ve been able to quote it since then. It took me a while but I did find it and was able to send it to them.
It was a column about marriage. She was writing about how on TV situation comedies when the couple in question gets together ratings go down because everybody likes the tension of will they get together or won’t they? She was specifically writing about Cheers, which was on at the time, so Diane and Sam. It’s a ratings disaster if they get together, but she said life is not like that. And she said if the TV show were like real life, there would be weeks where nothing happens. There would be an episode where there is a big fight over who put the car keys in the wrong place and we couldn’t find them. That’s probably not great television, but that’s really what marriage is.
I remember this line, she said, “Marriage isn’t a spectator sport and shouldn’t be because it’s personal, it’s special. It is a lifetime of a wife giving her husband the maraschino cherry out of the fruit cocktail and him never knowing that’s her favorite.” That was so simple and profound. I read that article the year before I got married and it’s been good advice. Keep marriage private, it deserves to be cherished and not put on display. I think that is the basis for why I hate reality shows about romance and marriage. It’s like you’re selling something precious. That’s not a real experience and you are cheapening it.
This play gives Erma the recognition and value that has not been given her. She has been marginalized and trivialized in popular culture as that lady writer, in that patronizing way: “She’s pretty funny for a ‘lady.’ She’s a pretty good writer for a ‘lady.’”
Clearly she doesn’t have the gravitas of somebody like Dave Berry, who wrote about boogers and won a Pulitzer. And I like Dave Berry. I think he’s a very funny writer, but I don’t know why he would be given more credibility than her. Well, I do know why. I hope this play brings a deeper appreciation to her as a phenomenal writer.
Do you have any pre- or post- show rituals or habits?
I don’t think there is anything particularly unique, I just like to feel ready when it’s time. I love the day when you move from the rehearsal room to the theater, “move-in day” As you can see, I like to have my dressing table all set up just so. I’m the person in the dressing room who when somebody says, “Do you have – fill in the blank: Q-tip, tweezer, something?” I’m like, “Yep! Got it! I got it!” I think part of that’s the mom, but part of it’s just that I like to have everything. I don’t like to do my preparation haphazardly or sloppily. I want to know everything is here. I have everything that I need. I always get a giant box of “Emergen-C.” The first thing I do is open my “Emergen-C” box when I come in. I don’t like to be rushed. I am not the gal who is going to come careening down the hall at places.
Do you have any creature comforts that you bring with you when you work on the road?
Yes, my dressing gown that I’m wearing. As you can see it is the oldest, rattiest, literally torn thing. When it was born, this was black. It was my father’s. He died in 1989. My sister-in-law made this for him and he loved it. Several years after my dad died, my mom hadn’t cleaned out his closet, so I asked, “Can I have it?” I always wear my dad’s robe and I always wear these slippers that my daughter gave me. People are always asking, “Would you like a better robe?” But there is no better robe.
(Photo: Barbara Chisholm as Erma Bombeck in Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.)