Mary Tilden is a professional actor, improv artist and theatre educator living in Chicago, and a 2012 graduate of the UofSC Theatre Program. One of the original actors in the 2018 Chicago debut of The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe (playing at UofSC's Longstreet Theatre February 21 - March 2), Mary travelled back to the University to see our production and participate in a post-show Q&A, which is scheduled for the February 23rd performance. Her advice had already been critical to UofSC Wolves director Lindsay Rae Taylor, who consulted with her during the show's pre-production period.
Mary generously took some time to check in with us via an email interview, posted
below, in which she talks about her career post-college, what she took from her time
at UofSC, and her experience with The Wolves.
You’ve been going full force as an actor and improv artist in Chicago. Can you give
us the rundown on your theatre life there since you graduated?
When I moved here, I immediately started taking improv classes and creating my own sketch comedy. Since then I've been on a house improv team at iO Chicago for five years, acted in several plays in Chicago storefront theatres, and teaching theatre and creative writing to Chicago Public School kids with my company Barrel of Monkeys. I've been with Barrel of Monkeys since the month I moved here, so this organization (where I'm now also on staff in addition to being a performer) has really kept me creatively engaged in theatre when I'm not working on anything else.
You were in The Goodman’s production of The Wolves as #13 in 2018. What do you remember as highlights from that experience? And, what
was the most challenging?
Playing #13 in The Goodman's production of The Wolves was my most important theatrical experience of my life. Highlights of that experience
were getting to play a role that I felt I could create that was truly unique to me
and my sense of humor. It was also incredible to work with a team of all women in
the rehearsal room, from stage management, to director, to other cast members. My
castmates from that show are now my best friends. I believe that the 10 of us are
changing the landscape of what Chicago Theatre looks like and what it values. They
make me feel like I can make a difference as a theatre artist, because we hold each
other up and we root for each other.
The show in general is really challenging. I had never played soccer seriously before, so I was learning how to play soccer as well as learning the show. Fortunately, I love it and I have always wanted to play soccer, so that gave me a leg up. Our auditions for the show were really intense. The callback was two days of the casting team at The Goodman looking at hundreds of young women (about 300!!) as we learned soccer drills from a soccer coach and they really worked us, too! I feel so lucky I was able to prove to them that I have the athletic ability to learn the skills needed for the show. The show made me love soccer in a way I never thought I would before and now I play on a rec league with several of my cast mates from the show!
Another challenge was that the show brought up some body image issues for me that I didn't realize I had lying dormant. Since we performed it in the round at The Goodman, our first preview was terrifying. I felt like I had so many eyes on me and I felt really under a microscope. I kept thinking, "Oh, my gosh, my thighs are so big, my thighs are so big," and that is so damaging when you're trying to be present with your castmates and make choices in the moment with them! I found that a really grounding thought when I would get caught up in how self-conscious I felt was to remember that my teammates needed me, and that would often bring me back to the script and the action onstage and the magic we had together.
The final and probably MOST challenging part of the show was having it end. It was such an incredible experience for me, and I definitely thought afterwards that people would be banging down my door asking me to be in their plays after the show closed, but then I remembered that there are really few plays that provide such great roles for young women actors like us. It made me inspired to start writing more plays, which I became more active with after it closed.
If it were up to me, most shows in a theatre's season would have as many roles for women as The Wolves and guess what? Those seasons would. Sell. Out.
When [Wolves director] Lindsay Rae Taylor reached out to you, what was the general advice you
gave her about staging the show?
My first piece of advice came from something that our director Vanessa Stalling had said in our rehearsal room, which was that no matter what these characters in The Wolves act like when they are together and warming up, it's how they act when the whistle blows that is really going to show the audience that they are a good team. It's that going-into-battle mentality that has to ignite as soon as the whistle blows. I love that so much.
We talked for hours about this show and I could talk for hours more with her. It's so great and I love the story Sarah DeLappe tells with it so much. Despite having not played soccer growing up, being a part of a team of young women is something I deeply relate to, and it is a huge part of my life that I have never felt was so beautifully expressed onstage as with this play. And I know I'm not alone in that! This play is a national movement. Colleges and regional theatres all over the country are doing it, and I take that to mean that there has been a need for this kind of story to be told for a really long time. We need more plays like this. Not just one every few years. If it were up to me, most shows in a theatre's season would have as many roles for women as The Wolves and guess what? Those seasons would. Sell. Out.
UofSC was great for teaching me that even if I was in plays at school, I needed to find what kind of theatre I'm interested in making and try to make that on my own.
Is there anything you learned or experienced during your time at UofSC that has helped you as you’ve progressed in life post-college?
UofSC was great for teaching me that even if I was in plays at school, I needed to find what kind of theatre I'm interested in making and try to make that on my own. There are always going to be the "main stage" equivalent of shows going on in whatever city you live in, too, be it on Broadway, at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Milwaukee Rep, the Folger, etc., but even if you're lucky enough to get cast on one of those stages, plays always end and your individual artistic needs don't. I learned a lot about rejection at UofSC, appropriately, because I wasn't always cast in main stage shows and I had to teach myself how to be involved in other ways. I was on lighting crew, I directed, I worked on adapting short stories to plays and devising them. I found people that I enjoyed working with and I learned what it is I do and what it is I don't want to make as an artist. I did improv and learned not to take myself too seriously.
Also! UofSC has grants in all their different departments for research, so I got grants
to travel and see different kinds of theatre all over the world. I would recommend
that to any college student. Study abroad and learn a new language. It will help you
so so much when you go into the world as a theatre artist.
One thing I wish I had understood more was that I would be experiencing rejection and that sometimes a "no" is actually a "not yet." When I get seen by a new casting director, that's a win for me, because maybe they'll think of me for another project down the line. I have to learn to accept rejection as a part of my job and build parts of my artistic life that can happen no matter what anyone else is saying. (Hence, the writing, stand-up and producing -- that stuff I'm in charge of and nobody gets to tell me no!)
Anything upcoming you'd like to plug?
I am currently in post-production for a short film I produced and starred in called Cool for Five Seconds, written by Chicago playwright Calamity West. It is really great and you should follow us on Instagram and Facebook so you can see when we might be showing the film in South Carolina! @coolforfiveseconds and Cool For Five Seconds - Short Film