'Dirty Barbie' and the secret lives of little girls

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 20, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
If you grew up in the 1960s or later and you were a girl, Barbie was probably an important presence in your life. Whether or not you related to the long-legged plastic doll with the unrealistic dimensions, she meant something to you.
Barbie definitely still resonates with playwright Denise Stewart, who is gearing up to perform her new show, “Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales,” at the Looking Glass Artist Collective’s black box theater.
Denise — who was Denise Laughlin when she lived in Salisbury and attended Catawba College — says she wasn’t “a baby doll girl;” she was “a Barbie girl,” and it does seem true that many girls fall in one camp or another.
Barbies are used in the show “as a launching off place,” she says.
For her, Barbies were “an anchor of creative play” with her girlfriends.
And that catchy title?
“Dirty Barbie is code,” Denise says. “Everybody’s Barbies were having sex.”
She hastens to add that the show isn’t “dirty,” although some of the themes are mature.
She was sitting at church one day when a woman asked what the name of her play was.
“I was embarrassed to tell her,” Denise says.
But the woman wasn’t fazed by her response and told Denise that she had kept all of her childhood Barbies, and offered them to Denise for use in her show.
When Denise saw the woman’s Barbies and accessories,, she couldn’t believe that her favorite Barbie dress was included. Denise’s own collection was long gone, she says.
“Dirty Barbie” looks at the secret lives of little girls, Stewart says.
In the show, images from her own childhood appear on screen, and Denise tells the stories behind the images.
She examines the notion of girlhood, “the way girls are,” and works her personal stories in.
As the older Denise looking back, she tells the stories in a linear fashion, starting when her family moved to Mooresville, which is where she grew up.
The show deals with Denise living in what she describes as “a very dysfunctional family,” with “strong overtones of anger, abuse, addiction and loss.”
Despite the turbulence in her family and the crucible she went through with her mother, Denise, the youngest of four, insists she had a happy childhood —“because of my play, because of my friends, because of the women on my street, because of my teachers….”
And so while it might seem that a play about a girl who grew up as the daughter of an alcoholic might be unremittingly dark, that isn’t the story Denise wanted to tell.
She’s more concerned with learning from the stories and showing how childhood, imperfect though it may be, is formative.
“We went through really hard times,” she admits, but she wasn’t interested in “taking people on a dark hour into the psyche of my mother.”
People might be surprised to learn that having a parent who was frequently absent wasn’t an entirely tragic situation, that there was “a lot of play and creativity” in being left to one’s own devices.
“The play is about the life I lived unsupervised – partly mean girl, partly survivor, partly pleaser,” she says.
The stories are about “the good things that made me stronger and the bad things that made me stronger,” she says.
• • •
Denise grew up in Mooresville and went to Catawba College, majoring in theater. After graduating in 1995, she moved to Seattle.
She didn’t stay long.
When Catawba College launched its original play series, Denise’s play “Green Shutters” was chosen. She had submitted it while she was still a student and it was selected in the fall of 1996 after she graduated. She returned to Catawba for the production of the play.
In the fall of 1998, Catawba established the Peterson Emerging Playwright competition and Denise was the first winner, with her play “Interior Lines,” chosen for production.
After that play was produced, at the urging of Dr. Jim Epperson, she applied to be one of only two playwrights who would earn spots in a highly competitive program at the University of Virginia. She was selected and began that program in the fall of 1999, going on to earn her MFA in playwriting.
She continues to live in Charlottesville, Va., and says it’s a great place for an artist.
“Arts have flourished more and more. There’s a very creative theatre scene I’ve really benefited from.”
Robert Jones, a member of Lee Street Theatre, which last summer decided to bring “Dirty Barbie” to Salisbury, has known Denise for years.
“She’s an extremely talented actor and (an even) better playwright,” he says.
The fodder for the stories in “Dirty Barbie” came from a blog Denise began writing a year and a half ago.
Although she’s an accomplished actor and has had a lot of experience performing the work of other playwrights, this is the first time she’ll be performing her own material.
“I have previously believed that there were edges to my performing, to my range, that I haven’t been able to touch through other people’s plays. Now we’ll see if I can go there on my own and risk that.”
Denise’s work life now is all about wellness and balance.
She owns a company called Wellness Charlottesville that teaches wellness to corporate clients. She incorporates a lot of theatre and performance as she helps people find total wellness — mind, body and spirit.
Denise’s own struggles with body image are part of what motivates her. In fact, she says, the whole “Dirty Barbie “ story is also the story of her gaining a lot of weight, eating through sadness and rejecting her own body, issues that many women struggle with.
She also teaches “happy body” workshops for girls, and she’s found there is a lot of interest in those.
“My heart is really there,” she says.
She’s married to Lance Stewart — who is also a writer — and they have a son, Ronald.
“They are incredibly supportive,” Denise says. “I feel guilty for being gone a lot, but they don’t make me feel that way.”
“I think they are pretty used to my freak-out mode when it gets close to show time.”
After the Salisbury production of “Dirty Barbie,” Stewart will perform the show in Charlottesville, Va.
• • •
“Dirty Barbie,” a world premiere, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 23 -Saturday, March 26 at the Looking Glass Artist Collective’s black box theater, at 405 N. Lee St.
Doors open at 7 p.m. and admission is $10, and students with IDs $5. For further information contact Robert Jones at leestreettheatre@gmail.com