Cheryl Stern is an actress who has appeared on Broadway in the past and is currently telling the story of her addiction to shopping via a solo show titled “Shoes and Baggage.” The musical show features original scores by Tom Kochan, an Emmy Award Winner. While developing the show, Cheryl made sure to tell the stories with humor and heart.

Cheryl is candid about her childhood when she was diagnosed with scoliosis and given the message that “clothes could fix it” or at least hide it. Despite these early challenges, Cheryl grew up to become a successful actress...albeit one who still had a habit of spending more than she earned.

After confronting this problem, she developed her story into a play which ran at The Cell theater. After a successful GoFundMe campaign, Cheryl announced that she will be performing the show from January 12 to January 16 at APAP/NYC which stands for the “Association of Performing Arts Professionals” which is one of the biggest gatherings of performers in the world.

Cheryl recently discussed this project and more in a recent exclusive interview.

Acting, roles, and shopping addictions

Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first discover your knack for acting and how did you go about pursuing your dream of breaking into the theater industry?

Cheryl Stern (CS): I was always putting on shows in the living room with my uber creative cousins and at seven, I was playing the Senator in a Thanksgiving play at school when the performance was stopped to announce that Kennedy had been shot.

It was going so well and I was just furious to have to leave the stage until it sunk in what had happened. But my big break came when I was ten and I stepped in for an ailing Tevye at the Jewish Center Children’s production of “Fiddler on The Roof”! I was in heaven! What was with the male roles? I had a strong personality and it was the beginning of learning that I could stretch and morph into a wide variety of characters.

I studied voice and acting in high school and was president of the National Thespian Society and director of the girls’ choir group, The Sweet Sixteens. I was hooked. I applied early decision to Northwestern University and off I went. It was an amazing experience in college, making life-long friends and learning so much. I got my start in Chicago theater and then moved to NYC after landing the national tour of Evita.

MM: You have acted on stage, have you ever pursued film too?

CS: I have been in two films; “Brooklyn Lobster” with Danny Aiello and Jane Curtin and “This is Where I Leave You” with Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda and Tina Fey.. I love it and I am really wanting to do more TV and film these days.

MM: What are your favorite kinds of roles to play and what sorts of characters would you like to play in the future?

CS: I have sort of made a career of being cast to play multiple roles in a show. I’m a character actress and I love immersing in each one quickly and thoroughly. It means changing costumes and wigs a lot but I just love the process. Also, I adore playing historical characters and finding my way to a unique interpretation of the person without imitation.

I loved playing Maimie Eisenhower in Michael John LaChiusa’s “First Lady Suite” and playing Alice B. Toklas in “27 Rue de Fleurus,” both Off B’way.

MM: You had scoliosis as a child, so how did that condition impact your life as a whole and do you think it impacted your drive to perform in any way?

CS: I was diagnosed at twelve with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. The idea terrified my parents and set me on a quest to try to fix it with clothes that could disguise it. While I never felt truly deformed, I knew I was different with a short spine and high hip. Lop-sized and far from perfect. A line from my show, "clothes can hide it, clothes can fix it, clothes are beautiful.” I do think it also impacted my desire to perform.

Onstage, I felt taller and straighter. I just could disappear into the character and transform.

MM: Your most recent play is about your shopping addiction, so how did this impact your life?

CS: I say in the show that I was literally born and raised to shop. My mother loved to dress my sister and I in the best clothes she could find. It meant so much to her for us to be pretty. It gave her great joy so we did a lot of shopping together! It was how we bonded and how we defined ourselves. I always had an amazing wardrobe and when I moved to NY and wasn’t making much money as an actor I still believed I could continue to buy what my mother had taught me to buy even though I couldn’t afford it. I just believed I would be saved by my big break someday.

It all caught up with me as I colluded with friends who were buying very high-end designer items and I was competing and bonding and wanting to be a part of that club.

MM: Did you have to research shopping addiction much and, if so, what most surprised you about the condition and what do you wish more people knew about it?

CS: No research was necessary since this is my story and it’s all true! I do wish more people knew how painful and dangerous it can be. Like all addiction, it can bring you to your knees and you have to find your way back up one day at a time! People seem to find a way to make over-shopping seem cute and funny. The expression "Retail Therapy" is so widely used and seems to make it OK to self-sooth with shopping.

It’s not funny when you can’t afford it and fall into serious debt.

Play, theater, and performances

MM: Was it hard to write a play about such a personal experience and how did you interject humor into the situation?

CS: Humor is natural to this story and to life. I love irony and writing from truth. We are all hysterical when you shine a light on our flawed humanity with love. Buying a $2500 shearling coat at a craft fair on the spot is funny! Going to a sample sale with Jennifer Tilly fifteen minutes before the curtain goes up for a Broadway show you are in is funny! Working on HSN and wanting to buy everything you are selling is really funny!

MM: Do you think writing the play helped you control your addiction to shopping and how is the recovery going?

CS: Performing this show has absolutely helped me feel less drawn to excess! I listen to my stories and I know change must come. My last song is called “Changing Room.” It takes place in a department store dressing room where my mother is watching my sister and I take off our clothes to try on new ones. It’s about change, leaving room for change. Trusting who I am, not needing to fix anything about me with stuff. It is about acceptance of imperfections and aging- dimples and rolls and sagging parts included! It’s about all of us learning to live in our own skin, joyfully!

MM: What made you start a GoFundMe and what was it like to run such a campaign?

CS: I was blessed to be able to incubate this show at Nancy Manocherian’s the cell theatre in NYC and we received a critically acclaimed production in 2016 directed by the fabulous Joe Barros.

I have so much faith in the piece and wanted to keep moving it forward.

We started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money to attend the APAP convention, which is an international gathering in NYC every year of over 3000, artists, presenters, and booking agents. I wanted to get my show to a large audience and to tour it everywhere. The message of female empowerment and shopping mindfully is very important for me to share. People have been so very generous. We raised over eleven-thousand dollars and while we have still gone in the hole to participate in this event with a booth and two performances of our show, my whole team learned so much, we made a major impression at the conference and bookings will hopefully flow from there.

So very grateful to all our donors and supporters! It’s a challenge to create and promote your own work and it was so heartening to see so many amazing artists pushing the boulder up the mountain. It takes a village, as they say and I have such an amazing team behind me, devoted to making this show take off in a big way.

MM: Can you tell us what most excites you about your upcoming performances this January?

CS: Getting up onstage and telling my story is the best feeling ever! I have so much joy being able to sing my husband Tom Kochan’s gorgeous music and it moves me deeply to see the audience react to the show with laughter and tears. Having an impact is everything!

MM: Are you working on any other pieces right now that you would like to talk about a bit?

CS: I finished the APAP performances yesterday and today I began rehearsals for a new Off-Broadway musical, “A Letter To Harvey Milk!” I am a co-author on this show and play a fabulous role as well; it’s dreamy and a dream team to work with. Very excited about this one and I only have to play one character…and she is a ghost! Performances begin in February and run through May of 2018. Look for “Shoes and Baggage” this August in a site-specific production in NYC courtesy of “Out of the Box Theatrics.” But it's not going to be in a is going to be in a store!