Brooke Bagnall's parents got a jolting clue about her future professional life when she was knee-high to a TV. Wouldn't it be nice to be Cinderella, Mommy asked, as they watched the Lesley Anne Warren version? Nope, she replied. Way more fun to be an ugly stepsister.
“Cinderella – we all know where she's going, right?” asked Bagnall from an Arlington, Va., hotel, touring America with the Second City comedy troupe. “It's the usual thing. But the stepsisters are hilarious! They're different.”
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The Davidson native didn't have the job qualifications for “ugly,” but “different” was no problem. Through her honor student days at Charlotte Catholic High School (class of '99), through time at Washington University in St. Louis (B.A. in drama and psychology), she followed a conventional path.
“Different” took over after graduation, and she'll show Charlotte where it led in “Deface the Nation.” The touring show from Second City starts a week's run Tuesday at the renovated Booth Playhouse.
“We're bringing Charlotte a political show, and the vibe changes every night,” she says. “We get boos, screams, cheers, all sorts of things. Our funniest reaction is gut-punching: We'll do something biting and hear ‘Ooooooh!' from the audience: ‘I can't believe they said that!'
“There's inherently a liberal bent, but we make fun of ourselves, too. I think our material is an inspiration for dialogue. The goal is to take a topic that affects you personally, such as health care in my case – how does anybody afford it now? – and present it universally.”
Bagnall trained for this job the way an apprentice roofer or mechanic might have: moving to Chicago to be near Second City, taking classes, learning from more experienced sketch and improvisation teams, winning a spot on the roster.
“Before Chicago, I'd spent nine months in Baltimore with (the theater company) Center Stage, working in education and convincing myself I wasn't going to be an actor. But spending nine months away from performing made me realize I had to go to Chicago and train, or I was going to explode.”
There she wrote and performed the one-woman show “idiot: a love story in pieces.” (“I put the title in lower case as some sort of modesty thing – I'm just that pretentious,” she says, laughing.) But that 45-minute tale of folks desperately searching for personal connections – “not my story, by any means!” – didn't make Bagnall want to become a soloist.
“There's no pressure to be funny in an ensemble piece,” she says. “It has such evenness of tone. Before shows, we (tell each other), ‘Hey, I've got your back.' My job is to make everyone around me look good. I'm still going to be a rock star, because all the others make me look good at the same time.”
Both college majors turned out to be helpful in that way.
Acting training, she says, gives her the ability to portray emotions onstage and jump quickly into unfamiliar texts. Second City frequently adds or changes bits – Sarah Palin became an especially hot topic this summer – and asks players to learn new lines overnight.
And the psychology degree lets her travel constantly with different types of people without wanting to strangle them.
“It's helped me read people and become more sympathetic in writing and performing,” she says. “I'm fascinated with why people behave the ways they do, especially if it's someone I don't understand. Why is George Bush the way he is, for instance? I want to learn how to deal better with everybody.”