Checking in with Denise Stewart

What are you working on right now?

A few things. I have a one-woman show called The Secret Lives of Little Girls that opens at the Lee Street Theatre in Salisbury, North Carolina, in March. I’m doing rewrites on that to get ready. Then I’m working on a screenplay with a screenwriting group that has some people in it you might know: Jen Downey, Christina Downey, Bree Luck, Phoebe Fliakos and Kate Bennis. We’re writing a comedy in the roundtable format and it’s really hilarious—we find it hilarious—and the process has been awesome. We meet a minimum of two hours a week, we do retreats—we actually call them “advances”—every six weeks to work on the script. Now I understand why comedy works in a group writing format. It’s a lot funnier.


What is your first artistic memory from childhood?

Renaissance woman: Local actress and writer Denise Stewart holds degrees in playwriting and theater, and splits her time between writing comedy, teaching wellness and delivering motivational speeches. 

I used to beg my teacher to let me do this character in class—this would be third grade—where I would paint a face on my chin and then turn upside down. I would flip over in a chair and do it. That’s kind of the “ham” side of you that comes out that can be irritating for a teacher, you know, trying to control that in a positive way. My teachers let me find a way to do it without really fussing at me too much.


Which of your works are you most proud of?

I played Dolly in Live Arts’ The Matchmaker last spring. Mendy St. Ours directed, and I felt that was one of my strongest performances in the past five years. I think this new piece will be my best piece—the solo show.


How do you prepare for work?

I like to do timed writings to start. I usually use an outline of what I’m going to do. In the first 10 minutes, I do a free write on one word that comes from what I’m going to write on.


Do you have any superstitions about your art?

I have a superstition about not giving out my work if I know there’s something I would change. In an MFA program you get workshopped, and if I had been lazy I would take something to workshop, people would make comments, and I would think, “I already knew that.” Then I thought, that’s not great discipline. 


Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?

I would really like to work with Boomie Pedersen. She’s the artistic director of the Hamner Theater. We’ve been in an industrial film together—a movie for Proctor & Gamble—but it was a very short thing. I would really like to act with her or be directed by her.


Tell us about your day job.

I own a business called Wellness Charlottesville, LLC. It’s a company that emphasizes whole-person wellness, specifically weight loss, body image work, and workshops for companies and individuals. I work with women who are really in an advanced place, who really don’t want to talk about losing weight. They want to talk about bigger issues of body work and body image. 


Tell us about a good book you recently read.

I just read the autobiography of Gandhi, but it’s my sister’s book. I have to return it and I don’t want to. It’s called Gandhi An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth. In my classes I’m trying to understand the lines between diet, and the truth about spirituality and food. On his first trip to England, people told Gandhi, “You’re not going to be able to not eat meat there!” He had promised his mother that no matter what happened, he would not eat meat, and he stuck to it. All the major religions use discipline with food as a way of going to the next spiritual level. He did a lot of experiments that helped me understand what I was asking of myself and other people to do. 


What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

I would try to be the next David Letterman. I’d love to have some kind of daily radio or TV show with a variety-type format. That’s very deep in my idea of what’s funny, entertaining in that way. I actually think that probably is my absolute best venue. That would be my natural state.

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