An Invitation to Hold Mommy’s Cigarette: an interview with Shelley Marshall

Shelley Marshall performs her play Hold Mommy’s Cigarette in Toronto for Mental Illness Awareness Week

When Shelley Marshall suggested the interview take place at her Full Bawdy Loft, I didn’t realize until I arrived that it was, in fact, her loft; a lived-in space that she was inspired to adapt for the October run of her show Hold Mommy’s Cigarette.

The eclectic 1970’s inspired set dominated the room. She gave me a tour, showing me some props and describing the lighting design for her show, opening tomorrow. I felt like I was invited into her home, shown family trinkets, and invited to ask my questions. It’s not surprising Marshall has inspired others to open up about mental illness.

For herself, Marshall says: “I choose to say I don’t believe that I was ever mentally ill I believe I was mentally ill-equipped. I did not have the resources, the understanding, of how to get help.”

Unsurprisingly, many initiatives about mental health involve raising awareness and educating the general populace. For instance, the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health’s Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) from October 5th 2014 to October 11th 2014 is described as “an annual national public education campaign designed to help open the eyes of Canadians to the reality of mental illness.”

Seated at her kitchen table, I asked if her decision to have Hold Mommy’s Cigarette overlap with MIAW was deliberate.

“I had no idea,” she admitted, calling the coincidence “serendipity.” Marshall is no stranger to working with health organizations. Just last month, she was hired to perform her show through the Canadian Association for Mental Health as part of World Suicide Prevention Day.

Her decision to perform for most of October with no day off stems from much more personal reasons.

As she explains it, “I planned it for October because that is the month that I attempted my own suicide. It’s also the same month of my father’s suicide.” As for the intense multiple week run, “The 28 days in a row every night at 8pm is to represent the days that I spent in a psych ward after my suicide attempt. It’s my way of getting the twenty eight days back; paying it forward”

Hold Mommy’s Cigarette is an autobiographical show about Marshall’s family and their collective struggle with mental illness. Thirteen years ago, after surviving her suicide attempt, Marshall became vocal about mental illness with the aim to deconstruct social stigmas by bringing the realities of mental health to the forefront.

In the show, she aimed to depict the impact of mental illness on her mother and grandmother and how their various struggles affected her as a child. Marshall constructs a nuanced approach to mental illness. She includes outside influences such as toxic environments created by abuse that can negatively impact recovery or, conversely, trigger the illnesses later in life.

With a diverse comedy background ranging from stand-up to clowning Marshall approaches the complexities inherent in her work for their comedy. Her approach to theatre as a tool to promote awareness was to ask “how can I take suicide and make that funny?”

While the play was not originally intended to broadly address mental illness—Marshall notes she “initially pitched the show as a one woman story”—it has since become an important work in cultural discussions. As an artist, she has received extensive feedback about the impact of her performance on those who are familiar with the story, either through close friends, family members, or from personal experience. Recently she’s started to get requests from educators about the performance.

I asked Marshall about the significance of live-performance as a way to break-down barriers. She said that as a vehicle for change, live-performance “accesses a part of our emotions that television and film can’t and the reason it does that is because of collective energy … to be in live theatre and have that experience of celebration is palatable.”

While she’s happy that people are listening to her story, Marshall recognizes there is a limit to the influence she can offer. “I must be mindful that if I’m going to put this out there I have a responsibility. I have a responsibility when people leave the theatre to tell them where to get help.” In the end, she is a performer and it is important for her health and others that people understand the need to seek professional help.

For anyone struggling to express their illnesses, Marshall asks, “What was it that you loved?” She is a firm believer that passion can create new avenues for communication and open new doors.


This article previously and incorrectly stated that Shelley Marshall performed for International Suicide Prevention and Awareness in 2013 as part of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and has since been corrected.

This article incorrectly stated that the loft space was rented specifically for the performance. It has since been corrected.