Making its world premiere at this year’s Hollywood Fringe is Cathy Schenkelberg’s solo show Squeeze My Cans, in which the writer/performer chronicles her life as a member of the Church of Scientology — and how she got out.
Hers is a story that seems ripe for a riveting theatrical experience, so I reached out to her for an interview about the production. As you’ll see here, Cathy is refreshingly frank and upfront about her journey through the world of thetans.
How did you become involved with the COS? And how did you get away?
I was pretty fresh out of college and working as an actress-hyphenate-waitress in Chicago. I was spiritually searching, and I wanted to help or contribute in some way to the world. Isn’t that what most people genuinely want?
How did I get away? Well, that’s the journey! It wasn’t overnight and it wasn’t easy. That’s the basis of Squeeze My Cans — it was developed in pieces through spoken word and storytelling performances over the years around L.A. and Chicago.
Aside from the obvious, is there another meaning behind the title of the show?
Besides the reference to the E-meter cans (which, if you know anything about Scientology, is the electronic device that’s like a lie detector, used to counsel or audit a person), the other reference would, in effect, be “Kiss my ass!” After being so fearful to speak out, it took the courage of others, including the media, to open up about the cult in order for me to add my voice. There’s power in numbers.
I also felt it was the right time. I had raised my daughter as a single mom and wanted so desperately to sing and perform again. It was she who pushed me to audition, write and put myself back out there. She knew how much I missed it while I was trying to keep up with what the COS demanded of me in terms of time and money. As I always say, I was “broke but not broken,” but to tell you the truth, I am a bit broken. Thankfully, the pieces seem a bit easier to put together since I left Scientology.
What words of advice would you give to somebody who may be in a similar situation you found yourself in?
Do research, seek out support groups and be careful of falling into another cult…I’ve seen that happen too. Most importantly, if a group tells you to think for yourself, and you realize that’s not what you’re doing at all — run! Hike, do yoga, eat pizza…just get the hell out!
The great thing about the times we live in now is that the Internet gives you easy access to information, even though you still have to research and decide for yourself what you read and see on television. Hasn’t the political climate been a perfect example of this?
I didn’t have access to such information back then. I think the only thing I found was a 1991 Time Magazine exposé, and Scientology had already created a publication to counterattack all that was written about them. We were given, as new members in the “church” (it’s difficult for me to refer to it that way without quotation marks), a magazine refuting everything in the Time story. It’s still creepy now when I think about it.
There’s even a magazine called Freedom that the “church” gives to its members. My accountant at the time (before he and others “disconnected” from me) said it was his only source for the truth about what’s going on in the world. Scientology spins it any way it can! Oh, I could easily go down the rabbit hole trying to explain things, but I’ll try to keep on point.
My show really takes you on a wild ride. My tremendous director, Shirley Anderson, has pushed it beyond what I ever imagined it could be. She understood my words and my experience, and she knew I wanted to go to that raw and vulnerable place to tell my story. I’m one of thousands of people who have gotten out. Not a celebrity or executive or staff in the “church,” just a girl from Nebraska who was searching for something. I was trying to become a better human being while raising a daughter and juggling a career in voiceover.
By reading your bio, I see that you’re pretty frank about your history. What will audiences learn about you from seeing the show?
I hope they will see that my intentions were good and came from a place of wanting to help and belong. I was so young, and although I hope to reach people of all ages, I especially want the show to make an impression on the 20-somethings who are just starting their quest to find themselves in a world that can really confuse and manipulate.
Look, my story could even resonate with someone feeling trapped in a bad marriage or an abusive relationship — anyone wanting to get out but fearful of losing friends or being shunned. Cults are out there, and they don’t just come in the form of religion. Offshoots of Scientology are out there, too. I don’t want to name them in this article, but trust me — there are folks being indoctrinated right now and don’t even know it.
Tell us a bit about your collaborators. How is the working relationship, and how are they helping to contribute to your vision?
This all was inspired by my friend, actor and playwright Sean Grennan. He saw my posts on Facebook and listened to some of my podcasts and said, “You need to get this on the stage!” I had been writing pieces for a couple of years, but he really lit the fire under my ass and made me accountable. I remember him reading and sharing stories of my experiences and stopping to exclaim, “Those f**kers!”
At a certain point, it was time to start getting it together — Chicago’s annual Fillet of Solo Festival was coming up, and I wanted to workshop the material. I called Shirley, whom I’d known back when I was in the cult (she was never in). Frustrated, I told her that I needed a director quickly — someone who gets me and my bizarre and quirky demeanor.
She said, “I’ll do it!”
Shirley has a huge background in theater and performance. She was working a “regular job,” as we actors say, but this was a project she was interested in. I remember her telling me, ”I love you — and I am obsessed with cults.” Perfect! On her own dime, she flew from L.A. to Chicago every other weekend to stage, tweak and otherwise kick my ass into shape. Her skill in helping to realize this piece and researching so much on every aspect of Scientology was astounding. I can’t say enough about her.
I conceived Squeeze My Cans, but she was the doula!
I asked someone I been stalking on Facebook, Victoria (Toy) Deiorio, to attend my last Fillet of Solo performance. She’s a hugely successful sound designer who works all around the country and is a professor at DePaul University. Afterward, she came to me and said, “I have to design your show!” I knew I couldn’t walk enough dogs to pay her, but she’s doing it.
Our lighting designer, Brandon Baruch, was a gift from the theater gods as well. He’s been involved in the Fringe in various capacities for years. Shirley had the “in” there and we’re really lucky. He will be our navigator for the Fringe and (fingers crossed) future runs across the States. Lastly, I have to acknowledge Brett Newton, graphics genius extraordinaire and mentor of the social media “through line.” His ability to take my sometimes inarticulate ideas of alien hands and boobs and come up with the Pulp vibe for our key art was incredible. He’s an artist who thinks beyond the art.
Those are my people. I know — pinch me!
What do you hope viewers will take away from this experience?
I hope that instead of hearing people say “How could you be so stupid?” or “Jeez, why did you give so much money away?”, they will think, “Wow, I understand now.” And if they don’t have that takeaway, I hope they will have been entertained, and tell others to come see the show. I’ll never get the money back that I lost to Scientology, but that was never my intention. I want to get back a piece of my soul that was lost. This is my therapy — this and lots of laughter!
Is this your first Fringe? How are you enjoying it?
First Fringe and loving it! Man, they have this thing down. There are such great people and great talent out there, and I’m so excited to see as well as share. I have to give a big shout out to the tremendous group over at Sacred Fools. Talk about passion and love! We feel really blessed to be in the space.
Cathy Schenkelberg’s Squeeze My Cans plays the Hollywood Fringe from June 10-26 at the Sacred Fools Theatre. Check the Fringe site for tickets and showtimes.