Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Shelley Marshall
Meet Shelley. I first met her when a mutual friend asked me to go see a one-woman show back in 2012. I’m always game for new theatre so went along. The show was the first run of Hold Mommy’s Cigarette, celebrating its 4th birthday this week! We spoke briefly after the show: more a ‘Hi, great show’ type thing and she chatted a bit with our mutual friend. It was only in 2015 that I noticed Shelley’s posts on the I Am A Leslievillian FB page and realized she was a ‘Villian. I remember loving the show and that it was a brave account of her struggle with the mental illness that ran in her family and all the trials and tribulations that go with it. And it was funny. How do you make mental illness humorous? Shelley Marshall can.
Born and raised outside of Hamilton, Shelley’s story is a heartbreaker : a schizophrenic father who suicided when Shelley was 7, an unmedicated mother who suffered from bipolar disorder, 3 sisters from 3 different fathers and herself, who was carted off to the Children’s Aid Society numerous times before the age of five from neglect and physical abuse. After her father committed suicide, her mother remarried – a 19 year old – and shortly thereafter, was pregnant. They lived with his parents on a farm outside of Hamilton, in a rural pocket called Dunnville. Her mom was hospitalized when the baby was about 5 months in utero and Shelley and her sister (the 3rd sibling had been adopted out as a baby) lived with her step dad where the cycle of abuse continued. When mom and baby came home, Shelley was shunned by the father of her new step-sister and left to her own devices. She coped by falling in love with her teachers, animals, people outside the family, and slipped into her own world. At the age of 15, she left, counting on friends and their families to lend her a couch, friendship and safety.
At this point in our conversation, my jaw is on the table. I look at her and see a happy, together, successful woman. ‘How on earth did you get from there to here?’. ‘I don’t believe I was mentally ill. I was mentally ill-equipped’, she says.
At 19, she met her husband Jason and less than a year later they had their daughter Chelsey, followed by their son, Cody, a few years later. When the kids were newborns, they moved back to the country into her mother’s old house, which was next to her bossy and controlling grandmother. ‘Why did you move back?’ ‘It was cheap, we had 2 kids and not much choice then’. When the kids were 7 & 9, they moved and bought their own farmhouse back near Dunnville which, ironically, was on the same RR road as her step-father. That brought back fearful memories, eventually landing Shelley in a psychologist’s office. Uncovering childhood wounds can lead to self-destruction and at age 37, Shelley attempted suicide. As bizarre as this sounds, her retelling of it had me in stitches. She has the gift of tragicomedy. In her depressed state she had put on weight, bought the cord to do the deed from the Dollar Store, and when she got up on the chair to say ‘goodbye world’, the chair, which couldn’t withstand her weight and the cheap cord, which was around her neck, broke. ‘2-bite brownies saved my life’. She laughs. We both laugh. At this point I ask how Jason, her husband, is handling all this. She smiles. ‘Not well then, but he stayed because I try. He and his family are a godsend. I’d never have survived if there weren’t angels dropping in’. After Shelley’s suicide attempt, she checked into a facility nearby for the mandatory 28 days. She saw a psychologist for approx 7 minutes a day but the one good thing that came from it all was that she was encouraged to tap into her creativity and get into the arts somehow. She scoured the local paper, all 4 pages of it, and saw a tiny ad on the back page for an improv class. The rest is history. ‘I killed it’, she laughs and fist pumps the air. Shortly after, she joined Second City taking the GO train in from Hamilton every week for 18 months. ‘I never got my grade 12, but I got my Second City,’ she grins. Not long after, NOW magazine wrote an article on her titled, ‘Best New Discovery’ in the Comedy section and the offers started coming. In 2008, Shelley’s daughter was renting a house in Leslieville, which she and Jason eventually bought, renovated into apartments and lived in, until she started her overseas stand up tour. Starting in the UK, they went to nine countries in eight months. On her return, she signed with an agent and did corporate stand up and wrote her first show, Full Bawdy Comedy Show, which included burlesque, singers, sketch and stand-up. Too risque for corporate gigs, she dropped the agents and started producing her own work with Jason and their son, Cody. She did scores of workshops including clowning, movement, drama, comedy etc,. and through self-promotion and social media she was able to establish herself as a force in the comedy/theatre world. In 2014, they decided to rent out their house and live/work/perform from their loft on Carlaw.
Shelley wrote her one-woman show, Hold Mommy’s Cigarette, in one weekend up at a cottage, in 2012. The old adage ‘write what you know’ has paid off. She’s performed the show hundreds of times for mental health organizations, fundraisers for women, in schools, all over the country and even has a scholarship from The Homewood, a mental health/addiction facility in Guelph, named after her. It’s designed for grads to help finesse the needs in mental health care. You’d never know by meeting her that she suffers from a panic disorder, PTSD from a traumatic childhood and has suicidal tendencies. She’s a warm, funny, engaging, welcoming, smart and generous woman. If only more people had the courage to tell their stories, in whatever form, there would be a lot less sadness, misery and entrapment in the world. ‘You can choose to be happy or choose to live in misery. I’ve chosen happy’ she smiles. Go and see her show when it’s next in the area. Even if you don’t personally suffer from any of life’s badly dealt cards, it’s worth seeing. It’s laugh out loud funny, sad, and most importantly, personal, which are the stories that really touch the heart.
Shelly performs all around Ontario as well as from her own work/live loft in Leslieville. She’s available to do her show for fundraisers. Her loft seats 40-45 people. You can contact Shelley at [email protected] and www.holdmommyscigarette.com