Photo: Leanne Schmidt-Slater and Marlene Strang as The Ladies.
Leanne Schmidt-Slater and Marlene Strang are the creative force behind The Ladies, a wacky duo of physical comediennes that perform live, immersive events in unexpected places. They even took their show to parking lots around the Valley during the pandemic and called it “Ladies in the Headlights.”
The women initially met when they were both studying dance at Arizona State University. They did a couple of projects together when Leanne was in graduate school but didn’t keep in touch. “When I lived in Brooklyn, we had a mutual friend there who saw my choreography and my dance work. And when I moved back to Phoenix, and Marlene moved back to Phoenix, our friend was like, you guys need to work together, you have the same sense of humor, the same goals for art-making,” says Leanne. “I said to Marlene, ‘OK! Rehearsal starts Monday.’”
While she was in New York, Leanne decided that she didn’t want to dance the way many of her peers and professors were. Instead, she started to exclusively perform dance comedy and now taps into that same creative process for her character in The Ladies.
“I want to experience theater and the arts in a way that is engaging, real, and one of a kind,” she says. “That’s the cool thing about our immersive work. You don’t see a piece of repertory because the audience impacts the performer, and the performer impacts the audience, so it’s never the same show.”
The two have been performing as The Ladies since 2016 and recently created a nonprofit called Yes And Productions with a goal “to support off-beat creative experimenters.” They want to work with established artists to start producing immersive work with no proscenium, no fourth wall, no actual start and stop to a show – redefining what it means to attend theater. “We’re excited to make Phoenicians and Arizonans excited about this type of work,” says Leanne. “To see something new and different and participate open-mindedly, and experience the arts and theater as something fun and accessible.”
Their first non-Ladies production is “Parsley Periwinkle’s Post-Pandemic Party Primer,” featuring Steve Wilcox as Parsley Periwinkle. Steve has been The Ladies’ support character for many years. The show will run Sept. 17 through Oct. 9 at the FilmBar’s “Lounge” at 815 N. Second St. in Phoenix, and each performance is limited to just 15 audience members.
“It’s going to be participatory on whatever level the audience member wants. I know people get a little nervous about participation, but we’re always careful to make sure it’s the choice of the audience member,” says Leanne. “It should feel more like you’re visiting with this character in his living room or at a dinner party. The space we’re using is this tiny little theater space hidden in the back of FilmBar that you have to walk through a velvet curtain to get to.”
In addition to supporting established artists, Yes And Productions want to support emerging artists through what they call “Piggy Back.” This program will offer new artists support and mentorship in terms of feedback, help with storyline development, or administrative support to further their exploration into immersive productions.
The Ladies are also working on a remake of their popular show called “Ladies Gone Mild.” “The Ladies go on a staycation at a hotel, and the audience goes to different hotel rooms and spots to look at our ‘amenities,’ which may include meditation, dance lessons and sunbathing tutorials,” says Leanne. “It’s super fun. We did it at the Clarendon Hotel in 2018.”
Leanne and Marlene also want to make more “Ladies Shorts” – short videos that feature The Ladies out and about doing their thing – working with a drag queen, waiting for USPS to deliver B Fresh Gear fanny packs, or shopping for an RV.
As if they aren’t busy enough, Leanne teaches dance in the Paradise Valley School District for the North Valley Arts Academies at Shadow Mountain High School. “It’s like a school-within-a-school – a specialty arts program through the PV District,” says Leanne. “It draws students who are interested in exploring arts on a deeper level. I am so lucky. I love my job.”
Marlene keeps busy doing adjunct work at Grand Canyon University and is working on a project with Phoenix Country Day School in the fall. She also supervises student teachers in dance education and gives them feedback. “In my opinion, she’s one of the best dance education teachers in the Valley,” says Leanne. Marlene also keeps busy with her two-year-old.
Leanne also has little ones at home, her 5-year-old son Grafton just graduated from Temple Chai’s Early Childhood Center, and her 2-year-old son Whitaker is currently enrolled there. The family are also members of Temple Chai in Phoenix.
“Our big goal, this is crazy, but you know how Nashville is known for its music, and Chicago is known for its comedy – and hotdogs,” says Leanne. “We want Arizona to be known as the destination for immersive art.”