For the dynamic duo known as The Ladies, modern dance and comedy come together in an effortless pas de deux. The productions that Phoenix natives Leanne Schmidt and Marlene Strang put on aren't like anything anyone else is doing in the Valley. It's an unclassifiable yet compelling mixture of dance, improv comedy, installation art, and immersive theater.
Rather than performing inside traditional venues, The Ladies interact with the audience inside public spaces. They're one of the few groups in town who are guaranteed to act in front of people who have no idea theater is happening right in front of them.
For their latest project, they are taking over Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix this weekend for Let Your Lady Out! An evening of unsolicited advice. They're teaming up with collaborators Steve Wilcox, Ramon Soto, Kevin Godfrey-Chevalier, and Guillermo Flores-Sepulveda to put on a show that’s part book symposium, part Choose Your Own Adventure, and 100 percent pure Ladies.
We got a chance to talk with Schmidt and Strang ahead of their two-night run to find out what improv and dance have in common and why immersive theater is having such a big cultural moment.
How did The Ladies project first come together?
Leanne Schmidt: Marlene and I attended ASU years ago before we separated from Phoenix — she lived in Colorado, I lived in New York. We both returned to the Valley and
Marlene Strang: We
The work you do — mixing together comedy with dance and improvisation and immersive theater elements — is very interdisciplinary. Was that part of your ASU background — learning how to mix different mediums together? Or is it just a process that appeals to you both?
MS: Yeah, we both studied dance at ASU, so we have a modern dance background and some training in ballet. And I’ve done an acting class at one time, but I’ve always done a lot of improvisations with dance.
LS: When I lived in New York City, I took two courses at the Upright Citizens Brigade. That’s where I studied comedy improvisation, and then I started to incorporate that into my work while I was in New York City.
Considering your backgrounds in dance and improv, I was wondering: Is there any crossover between those two mediums in terms of techniques? Are there certain principles that carry over from dance to improv and vice versa?
LS: Yes, in terms of directing. When I was in New York, I was directing a company there, and I started to use some of the rules of improvisation in my collaborative process. Marlene and I use them all the time. In fact, our LLC is actually called Yes And. That’s the number-one rule in comedy improvisation: to say yes to your collaborative partner and add to it. We found that to be the most important rule when it comes to creating something in a collaborative nature like dance or theater.
Are The Ladies totally fictional creations, or are they modeled off of aspects of your own lives?
MS: Yes, they’re absolutely models of our lives. We’re both moms to young children, we both have nursing babies. And so we’ve pulled from our families, our children, and from our crazy lives. That all goes into these characters and into that work. The work is not exclusively about parenthood, but it’s definitely a topic that we draw upon.
LS: We are living in a real-time immersive theater experience. Marlene has a 6-year-old and a 4-month-old, and I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old and a 10-month old. Plus we’re juggling our careers, our artistry, our caretaking, being a good partner to our husbands, the laundry, meal prep, all of these things. You’ll find out more about how The Ladies handle those things at our show.
What can folks expect to experience at Let Your Lady Out! at Changing Hands?
MS: The show will be dance, comedy, and immersive theater. The audience will have a Choose Your Own Adventure experience so they can choose to participate or if they don’t want to they don’t have to. We’re hoping that people come, that they grab the, um, what’s the cocktail of the hour —
LS: The cocktail of the hour is going to be called The Ladyade.
MS: Yeah, so they’ll have a cocktail, they’ll get to walk around and experience these self-help gurus — these characters who will be all around Changing Hands Bookstore. And after that, we’ll come in and gather in a space.
LS: And so the premise is that there’s the author, Guy Coxwell, who’s played by Steve Wilcox — and I think it’s really important that we mention that he really is our third collaborator, especially on this show. So Guy Coxwell has released a book called Let Your Lady Out and it’s a collaborative book about how he has summoned these expert gurus on the best practices for being the best person you could possibly be. So the audience will come into Guy's symposium, do their Choose Your Own Adventure, and then it all culminates in the Changing Hands commons for a sort of finale.
MS: And we want to emphasize that if people want to experience this by participating and relating to the characters and doing the activities that we’ve set out, they can. Or they can just watch cause we know some people prefer just to kind of take a backseat and observe. That’s okay—what’s important to us is that people have a meaningful, fun experience and a good time.
Because of the participatory, interactive nature of your work, I was wondering if you had instances where audience members reacted with hostility? Or were just confounded by stumbling onto your performance- “What the hell is going on? What is this?!”
LS: It’s funny because
Most theater-goers expect to buy a ticket and enter a space and be completely shut out from the experience with the performers. But we drew upon having the audience in our space: it creates a one-of-a-kind event that will never be experienced in the same way again.
MS: So what’s really exciting about this immersive site-specific work is that the bookstore will be open to the general public for the “Part A” of our show where people will be going around to the different stations that we have set up. We want some random people in there to stumble on the performance and go ‘oh my gosh, there’s a performance going on!’
That happened at the hotel — there were people who came up to the rooftop to hear the music, but there was no music that night. It was The Ladies. And I remember these two people there who had no idea what was going on but stayed and had a great time. So that’s definitely part of our fantasy — that we’re in these public spaces and people want to join in because it’s fun. That’s what excites us and fuels our fire. Our mission is to get people excited about attending theater or dance — to recruit people who would normally not see something like this or seek it out.
Over the last few years, it seems like immersive theater and art are having a moment with the growing popularity of installations and places like Sleep No More and Meow Wolf. What is it about this kind of work that resonates so strongly with people, and why is it catching on now?
LS: Young theatergoers are not interested in buying tickets to the opera. Everything is so participatory now, whether it’s social media or visiting with friends … people want to have an experience. Instead of looking at art, you’re coming in and being a part of it. Seeing how it changes with your specific presence and experiencing something that’s one of a kind, unique to yourself at that moment — that’s pretty exciting.
MS: I feel like that kind of work is memorable and it’s also exciting that as an audience member you can affect it. Like audience members for our shows: You can make an impact on the work if you choose to. We’re going to integrate certain ideas from audience members into the show. So you might be like, "Oh, I said that and they used it later." So not only is it a unique experience, but you’re making a contribution to the work in real time.
LS: Interesting that you brought up Sleep No More cause we’ve both seen it. We’d love it if someday we have that many people coming in through our door.
The Ladies are scheduled to perform on Friday, September 13, and Saturday, September 14, at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix. Tickets are $20 per person via Eventbrite.