Ordinary Life, Extraordinary Story: Mackey’s ‘Memoir’ sets his mother’s story to music

Ordinary Life, Extraordinary Story: Mackey’s ‘Memoir’ sets his mother’s story to music
MONICA HOOPER
mhooper@nwadg.com

Steve Mackey didn’t look far for the actress who would play his mother in the musical theater production, “Memoir,” based on his mother’s life. Turns out the nanny for his children was the best choice. Mackey brings his mother’s story to the Walton Arts Center stage for its world premiere at 7 p.m. May 18 during the Artosphere Festival.

Natalie Christa, who will narrate Mackey’s mother Elaine, hails from Western Pennsylvania, and her personality reminded Mackey of his mother. A former actress and singer, she went from working for his family as a nanny to “chief of staff” to Mackey and his wife, Sarah Kirkland Snider, who is also an acclaimed composer.

Grammy Award-winning composer Steve Mackey will present, “Memoir,” based on his mother’s life, during the Artosphere Festival at 7 p.m. May 18 at the Starr Theater at Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. He says that the memoir is both his mother’s story and his. (Courtesy Photo)

“[Christa] is doing an amazing job. Turns out that the piece is a real tour de force for the narrator, and she’s killing it,” he enthuses. “She is born to be on stage. She is just such a natural, and the fact that she cares about our family so much, I think, gives it a little bit even more depth.”

For the “extraordinary story of an ordinary life,” Mackey says that he could find musicality in the first lines of the narration: “My name after two marriages and one divorce is Elaine Ethel Austland Carter Austland Mackey.” As Christa delivers the line in the trailer, her words are punctuated by the percussion from Arx Duo while the narration flows with string arrangements from Dover Quartet. While composing the piece, the Grammy Award-winning composer says, “I would have her read bits of the text so I can get the timing, and I found that I was really composing around her rhythm and not only the timing, but just the more detailed aspects of her rhythm and the pitch of her voice.”

He adds that the “wonderful direction from Mark Dechiazza,” “brings out a lot of humor. And in the way Natalie, as my mom, interacts with the video projections of my actual mom is really interesting and funny.” His mother’s odyssey lent itself to the rising and falling action of theatrical storytelling.

“You need to have some kind of arc and maybe some sort of crux event or progression. In this case, it ends up being her alcoholism,” Mackey explains, saying his mother drank as a way of dealing with social anxiety, but that she stopped drinking in 1974. “One line in the memoir is ‘My mother died of embarrassment many times.’ It was, in fact, embarrassment or a feeling of shame, ultimately, that marked her rock bottom. When she hit rock bottom, she never took another drink. So there’s a lot of interesting stories — and it’s not all about that.”

Natalie Christa will narrate “Memoir.” (Courtesy Photo)

Her stories are pinned to a specific time as she grows up in Pittsburgh during “steel mill times with an immigrant father, who went from being an engineer in Sweden to a steel mill front line worker.” Her story is told against the backdrop of large historical events such as World War II and the Great Depression. “She moved to Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Before Hollywood was all smoggy and all that. In a way, there’s a kind of a ‘Forrest Gump’ quality to the story,” Mackey says.

“I’m hoping like any performance, you can see what an incredible gift it was,” he says. In 2004 Mackey says that his mom started creating the memoir as a way of preserving her letters and to learn how to use a computer — or a “word processor,” as she called it. “She had a lot of letters that she had written when she moved overseas, and she wrote back to her family,” Mackey explains. She told him: “I want you to know some things about my life before you came along, and I want your kids to know a little bit about me since I’m probably not going to be around when you have a family.” She passed away in 2007 from esophageal cancer.

Mackey relates a story of how she called him on the day that she died to deal with some last-minute planning.

“She said, ‘Steve, I want you to come over and visit earlier today because today’s going to be my last day.’ And I went over to her apartment and said, ‘Mom, I don’t want you to be bummed out if you wake up tomorrow morning and you’re not dead.’ She laughed and she handed me a folder of all the phone numbers I was supposed to call and she just went about her business with such strength and serenity and comfort with it all. … It was amazing and inspiring.”

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FAQ

‘Memoir’

WHEN — 7 p.m. May 18

WHERE — Starr Theater at Walton Arts Center

INFO — Tickets are $15-$25 at waltonartscenter.org/artosphere/steve-mackeys-memoir

BONUS — Watch an excerpt from Steve Mackey’s “Memoir” here: nwaonline.com/58memoir/

See the full trailer here: nwaonline.com/58trailer/

Categories: Music