No rest for the brain-dead

The blood, sweat and cheers behind Six Women With Brain Death’s unprecedented six-year run

Six women with prom gowns.

Six women with prom gowns.

Photo By Bill Hennig

It was Jackie Schultz’s day off. For most of us, having a free day is a bi-weekly event of little note. However, Schultz’s responsibilities as the owner of the Studio Theatre; president of the Sacramento League of Theatres; and producer, director and actor in Sacramento’s longest-running production, Six Women With Brain Death, leave her with little spare time. As she bluntly stated, “I haven’t had a day off in months. I’m burnt beyond burnt.”

Earlier attempts at an interview were scrapped when the phone in the Studio Theatre box office rang unceasingly with reservation requests for Six Women, rendering Schultz unable to finish a sentence with anything but, “Oh! There’s the phone again.” But, on the second of two entire days off, presumably rested, she was ready to talk theater. Well, almost ready.

“I’ve been here since 9 o’clock this morning,” she related, sighing over the phone. “I’ve been on the roof cleaning out the drains. The rain is causing leaks. There were problems in the light booth, and a tree fell. There’s a guy on the roof fixing the air conditioner. When you’re a business owner, there is no vacation. It’s just, ‘OK! Keep going!’ ”

Considering Schultz was handling more in a morning than many people accomplish in a week, one might wonder how it could be considered a day off. “Well, I’m not in the show tonight,” she said brightly.

That is something, considering how many of the Studio Theatre’s estimated 1,140 performances of Six Women With Brain Death she has acted in. The play is a comically irreverent collection of vignettes targeted at middle-aged women and about the unique problems presented to them by American culture—relating to teenaged children, buying self-help books, attending a high-school reunion and surviving an onslaught of info-tainment from “a civilization determined to entertain itself to death.” Women and men from throughout Northern California have gathered to “laugh, scream and blow off steam” (as the play’s motto suggests) four nights a week, 48 weeks a year since the show opened in October 1996. More than 30 actresses and 15,000 audience members have made it the longest-running play in Sacramento’s history, and, judging by the constant ringing of those box-office phones, public demand shows no signs of slowing.

What has made this wacky play an unprecedented success in the Sacramento theater scene? “People tell me they’ve laughed harder than they’ve ever laughed at anything in the theater,” Schultz said. “Six Women is very entertaining and very fast and very funny. It gives people permission to let go. People call me and say, ‘I’m a brain-dead woman, and I need to see this play!’ ”

Shelley Russell, who has acted in the play since 1998, attributed part of its appeal to the music. “It’s not like ‘It’s a Small World’ over and over again,” she said. “The music is very difficult and complicated to learn. There are four- and five-part harmonies. I think that’s why people can take seeing it so many times.”

Ultimately, however, both actresses agree that the magic behind Six Women With Brain Death comes from the audience. “The audience is the seventh member of the cast,” Russell said. “When we have a great audience, we give a great show.”

“It’s something I’ve studied my entire career—the kinetic energy that flows between a stage and an audience that makes theater so unique,” Schultz explained. “It makes live performance so much more special than if you’re watching TV or a movie. It’s a group psychological experience, and, when the majority of the group buys in, I’m lifted and swept away by the commonality of the experience. You get that in church.

Jackie Schultz demonstrates the Carmen Miranda patented technique for brain death therapy.

Photo By Bill Hennig

“The audience comes into the theater with completely divergent experiences,” Schultz continued. “They bring their baggage and whatever happened to them that day. The goal is to bring them all together and take them on a journey. If the audience really goes with it, then the play just has a magic to it.”

“I get recognized a fair amount around town,” Russell admitted, “but people are always amazed because often, when they’re talking to me, I remember where they were sitting in the audience. If they were in the first four or five rows, I remember them. We’re constantly talking to them and including them. Every night is a different show because of the audience.”

If the actresses love the audience, the audience feels no less for them. When asked for stories about favorite fans, Schultz and Russell both named Marghe Covino, president of the Lambda Community Center. “She’s been one of our biggest supporters,” said Schultz. “Her favorite number is ‘Toll Road,’ ” a vignette about driving to relieve stress. “She came to one of our anniversary shows with a golden steering wheel with money attached—you know, coins to pay the toll? She sat in the audience steering and singing, ‘Mama gets mean in the car!’ She just kills me. She is so amazing,” Schultz said.

“Sometimes, we’re having a rough night,” Russell said, “and we’ll see Marghe out there, and everything changes. ‘Oh! Marghe’s out there! We’ll have a swell time!’ ”

“I have made incredible friends from the people who’ve come into this building,” Schultz related. “There was a really special woman who has now passed away. She came to last year’s anniversary show. She was dying of cancer. I knew it would be the last time I saw her. She used to be an event planner, and she planned her own funeral. She gave me an invitation, silver embossed, and she told me the reason she came to the show so many times was that it made her laugh so much, it would sustain her for a week or more.”

It is the show’s therapeutic quality that inspires Schultz to keep performing. “Sometimes, I feel like the Statue of Liberty,” she said. “You know, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’ [The show] has so many life lessons about letting go and laughing at tragedy, and life is ridiculous, so why take it seriously? People call me and say, ‘Jackie, keep going! Thank you so much for what you’re doing.’ That’s the biggest thing that’s happened here, really.”

Of course, as Schultz is fond of saying, “in six years, you’re going to get it all.” The women groan when discussing acting through 104-degree fevers, power outages, spontaneously breaking props and audience members who occasionally storm out during “God is an Alien,” a skit about televangelism’s use of religion to sell merchandise. “I even got a ‘You’re a devil worshipper’ letter from a Christian-right person! I was like, ‘Me? I’m one of the most go-to-church, loving people I know,’ ” Schultz laughed.

And then there are the nights the audience doesn’t buy in. “Sometimes, the audience just sits there with their mouths closed. They look at you like you’re speaking Chinese, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God! Get this show over!’ ” Schultz shrieked. After six years of acting the same vignettes, she admitted that staying inspired is a challenge. “I’ve definitely reached the point of burnout. I’m to the point where, if I don’t have an audience that gives me what I want, I get pissed off. I’m like, ‘Entertain me!’ But, every time I start singing the opening number, even if I was a mess before, well, I just love the show. I honest to God love it.”

The success of Six Women With Brain Death has allowed Schultz to build a thriving business. The Studio Theatre is the only theater in Sacramento that currently offers year-round, steady work to actors. Russell considers herself lucky to be included. “There are only three companies in Sacramento that really pay: Sacramento Theatre Company, B Street and Jackie,” Russell said. “We have alternates who come in and out of the show, so I’ve gone on vacations. It’s like having a real job! A real job that, nine-and-a-half times out of 10, is really fun.”

Schultz also has created an internship program to give experience to young actors, and she’s selecting a new play to run at the Studio Theatre this spring. And then there’s aRt street, her nonprofit effort to increase the art-performance space in this town. “If we end up getting the 10,000 square feet next door, there will be another theater next to this one,” she said.

But Schultz said none of the projects would interfere with the continued production of Six Women With Brain Death. “When a show has been running this long, there’s no reason to close it,” she said. “Six Women has become a part of what Sacramento calls its own. You come here, and we have Six Women With Brain Death. There’s never been a production like this, and the success here has encouraged others to try it. I get calls from New York, from Seattle. I never stop working on it. I never stop thinking of ways to make the theater better because I love this place. I … Oh no!”

A new leak had sprung, center stage. “It’s not even raining!” she wailed. “How could it be leaking? Oh, I’m going to have to get on the roof again.” With that, she hung up to enjoy the rest of her day off.