The Overlook with Matt Peiken

Post-Traumatic Theater | Poet and Storyteller Barbie Angell

March 22, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 143
Post-Traumatic Theater | Poet and Storyteller Barbie Angell
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
Post-Traumatic Theater | Poet and Storyteller Barbie Angell
Mar 22, 2024 Episode 143
Matt Peiken

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Barbie Angell is a poet and storyteller, children’s book author and emcee. Threading all of it, she’s a survivor. She’s candid about the range of abuse she experienced throughout her youth, and a quarter-century of ongoing psychological abuse she alleges from a domestic partner.

The last few years have been particularly difficult for my guest today. While the pandemic brought its own fears and isolation for  Angell, recent health issues have taken a toll. In the week before our conversation, she spent four days in the hospital. 

Of course, Angell has always leaned on her traumas for her artistic expression. Several years ago, The Magnetic Theatre premiered “Death By Sparkle,” Angell’s autobiographical play deriving its name from a time she drank window cleaner in a suicide attempt. We’ll hear about all of it, along with two vignettes from her upcoming self-fundraising show, "Uncensored"—March 27 at LaZoom.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

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Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

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The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

LISTENERS: Have thoughts about this episode? Send them my way!

Barbie Angell is a poet and storyteller, children’s book author and emcee. Threading all of it, she’s a survivor. She’s candid about the range of abuse she experienced throughout her youth, and a quarter-century of ongoing psychological abuse she alleges from a domestic partner.

The last few years have been particularly difficult for my guest today. While the pandemic brought its own fears and isolation for  Angell, recent health issues have taken a toll. In the week before our conversation, she spent four days in the hospital. 

Of course, Angell has always leaned on her traumas for her artistic expression. Several years ago, The Magnetic Theatre premiered “Death By Sparkle,” Angell’s autobiographical play deriving its name from a time she drank window cleaner in a suicide attempt. We’ll hear about all of it, along with two vignettes from her upcoming self-fundraising show, "Uncensored"—March 27 at LaZoom.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

SPONSOR: Asheville City Soccer Club home games run through June 29 for the women's team and July 13 for the men's team at Greenwood Field on the UNC-Asheville campus.

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken: You were admitted to the hospital last week. What happened?

Barbie Angell: About six months ago, my doctor started to get concerned cause I was having what I was jokingly calling mild heart attacks, which actually were mild heart attacks. And so my doctor checked my heart and everything and found that I had tachycardia, which is a super fast heartbeat.

This particular type and what I'm calling extra beats by Dre so extra heartbeats thrown in there. And yeah, so I had a massive one of those this past Wednesday and my son called an ambulance. And over the next four days I had three of them and it took the doctors a little while to figure it out because my body is physically healthy.

There is nothing wrong with my heart. What it turned out to be is that the CPTSD causing the super fast heartbeat and the extra beats also caused my heart to just seize up. It's called a vasospasm. 

Matt Peiken: And that put you in the hospital for four to five days. 

Barbie Angell: Yeah. And I've had a chronic constant migraine for 10 years. Right now it's at an 8 on the pain scale and I'm happily doing an interview because I have a high threshold for pain. If I'm ever on Tinder, that's gonna be like my bio. She has a high threshold for pain. 

Matt Peiken: It's been just you and your son. Now he's is he 18 17 just turned 18 and how many years has it been the two of you? 

Barbie Angell: I mean his dad is around and that's The problem like i've been trying to get out of that situation get a divorce since 2010. He just he just won't grant a divorce and in North Carolina, you have to be separated for a year before you can get divorced and he won't leave and he won't let me leave. He won't leave.  

Matt Peiken: You're in the same house? And how are you not quote able to leave? Why don't you just leave? 

Barbie Angell: For the longest time since 2009, 2010 I just thought it was a really bad marriage that he wouldn't let me out of and it took a lot of my friends telling me all that time, this is abuse.

And I'm like no, no, no, it's not that bad, but if he gets mad at me or anything else, then it's I'm a terrible person. I'm a horrible mother I'm a monster Nobody really likes me. Everybody's just nice to me because I'm well known. 

Matt Peiken: But you're still in the house 

Barbie Angell: there with yeah, so psychological violence is really hard to prove and they don't do anything. It was only about when I started losing the weight that I was like, Oh, okay, everybody's right. This is abuse. And I started trying to deal with that.

But it took me a while. I have spent. The better part of the last 15 years raising money on stages as an emcee and poet. Promoting places like Our Voice and Helpmates, the domestic violence agency. 

Matt Peiken: And you have sought help from them. 

Barbie Angell: Yeah. It took me quite a bit of time.

Like it was just in January that I finally went to them because I, again, there's a lot of gaslighting and saying I'm overreacting and, I didn't say that and so on and so forth. And so I just kept thinking it was all me. It was me just not being a good person. 

Matt Peiken: And All this time you've Made art. You've been an artist and performer. Has all of this What you've been suffering through and dealing with health wise psychologically physically and otherwise, Have you always funneled that into your creativity or were you always trying to keep it separate?

Barbie Angell: A lot of the stuff I have written has been about either the things in my life, the living in the orphanage or on the streets as a kid or sexual assaults or whatever. I just this past year started really writing about this situation. I had been prior to my son's dad, I had been in a physically violent relationship that it was like nine months and I just had no idea like you never have any idea going into it. You're just like, oh wait, hold on. And and so I had written about that and like that's in my autobiographical play, Death by Sparkle. But aside from the shame that you have from being in a situation like this, I was trying to keep it all from people. Most people didn't even know I was married. Or anything, or that he even existed. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, you've been at least, you're very active on social media, at least on Facebook posts. And you and I don't know each other really outside of my journalism and talking to you in that capacity.

And I thought you were a single mother with a teenage son. 

Barbie Angell: And yeah, and people will pop up with that every so often and be like, Oh, single mom Nope, not a single mom. 

Matt Peiken: You said you spent time in an orphanage. You said, did you have any relationship with your birth parents? 

Barbie Angell: Yeah, had parents and my mother is I hope she hears this. My mother is very abusive. And when I was 11, she left us, my older brother and sister and I, and she was abusive to my father too.

So he was like, Really unable to, I think, function. So we lived on people's couches And in different places for about two years and then when I was 13 I was homeless in Joliet, Illinois as more of my brother and sister for about two months And that's where you grew up was Joliet. I grew up in Illinois all over Illinois. 

Matt Peiken: Okay, and So you were homeless as a teenager in Joliet. 

Barbie Angell: Yeah, which is not a fun place to be. I haven't heard Joliet's a fun place anyway. Yeah, my father was a prison guard. That's how I was in Joliet. They had already been trying to get me into this children's home.

It's, at the time, had about 300 kids. It's sponsored by the Moose Organization. So if you're a Moose member or a woman of the Moose, Thank you so much. And and yeah, it's run like an orphanage, like a huge institution, huge campus. And my parents had already been trying to get me in there, I guess, since a few months before I was homeless. So yeah, they put me in there. 

Matt Peiken: Once that happened with you, did you never know from that point forward really a life of normalcy in the home. 

Barbie Angell: No. My mother's abuse was very much like mental and emotional, telling us that she hated us or she was going to kill us in our, I cut off contact with her in early 2020, after four days of having gone out to help her move in Arizona and four days of her telling me, go to sleep, I'm going to kill you in your sleep, or I'm going to kill myself and make it look like you did it so that you go to prison and you never see your son again.

Matt Peiken: So you obviously grew up in a lot of turmoil. Were you expressive creatively as a teenager? I'm just wondering, what was your entree into performance and in writing?

Barbie Angell: My first year in the orphanage, it being a charitable organization, people would donate gifts for Christmas and someone gave me a diary. And you can't have a diary in an institution because there's no privacy. They go through all of our stuff. They'd come into our rooms every couple hours at night and shine a flashlight in our face and make sure we were there. So I got this diary, so instead of writing down my thoughts, I wrote them down in poems.

So I knew what they were about, but nobody else did. And so poetry being so esoteric or whatever they didn't, They were like, Oh, they're just poems. We're not going to pay attention to them. So I could have a diary without having a diary. And then I had an English teacher in the orphanage that really liked my writing and encouraged that. I wanted to be a lawyer from the time I was six, I wanted to be a lawyer.

Matt Peiken: But yet from what I know, you've made your way as an artist for many years now. When did that tilt in that direction? 

Barbie Angell: So my house parent, the woman that took care of me my senior year in the orphanage her brother in law was a theater teacher at Lincoln college in Lincoln, Illinois, a little private two year academically elite sort of school.

And I was going to go to Harvard cause that's where they were in paper chase. And I had the grades, like I didn't go to school from fifth grade to ninth grade, but 

Matt Peiken: you didn't go to school from fifth to ninth grade and then when in high school, it was entirely at the orphanage?

Barbie Angell: Yeah. Yeah. My first year there, my grades were not good, but then I have a very high IQ.

I'm what happens when you throw away a gifted child. It doesn't make me smart, it just means I learn better, I think, than other people do. 

Matt Peiken: I just think that's very imprinting about your youth. That I think that says it in a kernel you didn't even go to school from fifth to ninth grade And then your entirety of high school was in an orphanage. So what brought you to Asheville? And when was this? 

Barbie Angell: So that was in 1999 I had been in that abusive relationship physically abusive relationship for about nine months. And the guy that I was with got me pregnant and also had been cheating on me and got his ex girlfriend pregnant. So I was like, I need to leave Illinois.

And I chose North Carolina because I had a cousin in Raleigh. And I did poetry at a bar and I was really one of the few people successful at doing it back then.

Matt Peiken: Was that your first time ever performing your poetry? 

Barbie Angell: No the guy that got me to go to Lincoln actually is the person that convinced me to be a writer instead of a lawyer. My parents were super disappointed and he taught me acting and that, but he also set up my first gig at a Barnes and Noble in Bloomington, Illinois.

Matt Peiken: So you came to north carolina in 99. What steered you to Asheville? 

Barbie Angell: This musician that played guitar and his girlfriend at the Bar Lizards Lounge in Bloomington, where I did poetry. They were like, Oh, hey, we heard you're moving to North Carolina. Asheville is a much better place for you. And of course, back then Asheville wasn't a destination for anybody, really. It was very different than it is now. And they're like, you could stay with us and so I was like, okay, I didn't really care where I went, they had told me about all the places I could perform and how artistic it was at the time and that.

Matt Peiken: Did you find a quick home? Did you find your people? 

Barbie Angell: I drove here. I sold everything I own, grabbed my dog, bought a van and drove here. It was a Wednesday night and got to Asheville just after midnight.

And thursday evening, Bean Streets downtown, the coffeehouse that used to be downtown had their open mic, and I was there. The next night. The next night, and Richard who owned Bean Streets fell in love with my weird poetry. Everybody called me the bitter poet girl, because I had a poem I did called Bitter Much back then.

And I was well known within a week here. 

Matt Peiken: Do you think it was because content wise you were fearless about exposing yourself? 

Barbie Angell: Yeah, absolutely. And a lot of my pieces are very accessible to folks that wouldn't normally go to a poetry event. There's a lot of rhyming poetry. It's all very simple words. 

Matt Peiken: Is that intentional or did that just organically develop 

Barbie Angell: as your style? 

Yeah, it is just the way that I was always a big fan of shell silverstein and dorothy parker and lyrics which are just poems, you know set to music and it took me a while to actually start writing in free verse because my brain thinks in rhyme when I'm writing. So there was like this very lyrical rhyming poems with very Dark messages and usually at the end there was some sort of Oh, Henry twist. 

Matt Peiken: Also, you came of age at a time when that kind of poetry, this sort of cathartic tell all poetry was starting to come in vogue nationally. I'm just curious, when did you start developing the material that led to Death by Sparkle, your first autobiographical show?  

Barbie Angell: I went to a lot of therapists and psychiatrists over the years. The orphanage they didn't have any oversight when I was there. I was never sexually assaulted by anybody who worked there, but was by many of the guys that lived there. And I tried to actually, during the Me Too movement, I tried to do the math like the first year I was there probably 250 separate sexual assaults what to you, to me, 250 in one year, multiple times a week during the summer and winter break, I lived in the health center there because I Drank a bottle of Sparkle window cleaner and tried to kill myself.

And so these therapists would always be like, you're a writer, you should write about this. That would be the best therapy. Like every single one of them. Rodney Smith and I used to do a lot of writing together, and we decided to write my story as a play. And it never really went anywhere. We had a lot of great ideas, and then when Katie Jones at Magnetic started the new play development program she came to me and said, we want the first play that we do to be your story and I will help you write it. And so she was my dramaturge and we curated this whole thing together. 

Matt Peiken: Your stories, which are born from trauma. They're intimate and they're your stories. Katie's fantastic at what she does, but bringing somebody else into your story process and shaping it into something theatrical. What did that do, do you think, for your stories and how did that affect how you were processing your experiences?

Barbie Angell: It was very weird to do that. Katie and I were very close friends, so she knew a lot of my life. There was still things that I would tell her that she had no idea. And she wanted me to Write it and be more theatrical with it. As a writer and, you're writing your autobiographical play, I wanted to be very linear, very not, this is exactly what happened and you really need to shape it a little bit.

Matt Peiken: Why do you need to shape it? 

Barbie Angell: Well, Some of the things like you don't want to show 250 Sexual assaults, you know, I was raped in college twice. We didn't want to show both of those. The amount of times that I did try to end my life in the orphanage, like they didn't need to see me taking 60 pills when I was 17, the drinking the bottle of window cleaner was a better way to go.

And then at the time I was still trying to keep my son's dad out of it, even though Katie was very certain that it was an abusive situation, he's not mentioned in the play at all. 

Matt Peiken: Again, going back to my knowledge of you, I didn't know about him.

You've been, at least in your social media posts and how you present, it's you and your son, and Death by Sparkle, he's not mentioned at all. Yeah. Were you aware in the back of your mind, I am leaving out a big part of the fire in what's happening in my life now?

Barbie Angell: Yes. And part of that is, part of the gaslighting is using anything that you're ashamed of or anything that you're proud of against you. And he has throughout this whole 25 years used my past traumas against me to say I'm crazy because of these things that happened to me or were done to me, I should say. Or I just want to be a victim. And so the reason I did Death by Sparkle or the reason that I tell my stories about sexual assault onstage to raise money for Our Voice or whatever is because I want people to see me as a victim and I really do not. But hearing that all the time like makes you think maybe they're right.

Matt Peiken: So death by sparkle successful as it was you had great feedback on that show.

Barbie Angell: I did I did. Oh my god it was fantastic and It was exactly what I was hoping it would be. The response to it because I am well known in town I was worried that people were going to show up just as a, an oddity, like those therapists, Oh, wow, this is all very interesting.

And they're thinking, I'm going to write a book about this person that had all these traumas and it's not, I'm going to help this person get past all these traumas. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. But at the same time you're presenting, look, your show, even in the title death by sparkle, it's a twist on you tried to kill yourself by drinking Windex and so there is a sensationalism to the very nature of your story.

And when you're putting it on stage, you have to imagine, it's not necessarily an oddity, but you're revealing yourself in this public way and you can see why people would come expecting to spectacle in a sense. 

Barbie Angell: And I thought that's how they would leave as well, and instead there were all these people that came up to me that said they felt seen that they saw themselves in the things that had been done to me. I believe that we are the choices we make.

So this is done to you. What do you do about it, and they saw themselves in the things that I had done to get through the traumas and all of that. And so it was a lot of people saying they felt healed in ways, from seeing this or less alone. People see what I am vulnerable about on social media, but they don't see that when I was telling my stories during the Me Too movement, probably 50 people privately messaged me and I was their outcry. That I was the first person they ever told about their being sexually assaulted. 

Matt Peiken: You were talking about just a moment ago, you need to raise money and you're presenting your new show as a fundraiser. It's a one night only performance, at least at this point. When I saw that, I thought, oh, this is probably the most presented form of busking that I've seen.

Barbie Angell: Yeah, my last solo show, just me on stage doing my own poetry was at Tressa's in 2012. And it was a fundraiser for my book "Roasting Questions," my children's book. So this is just me. It's a 90 minute show, and there'll be like a 15 minute intermission. So it's just me on stage for 75 minutes.

Matt Peiken: And it's a mix of theater and poetry? What is it? 

Barbie Angell: Yes, yeah, so it's gonna have poetry through the decades cause I've been writing poetry Since I was 13 so it's going to have a variety of poetry through the decades, some funny stuff, some dark stuff, some very vulnerable stuff that I don't usually perform in public.

One piece that's incredibly risque. And then it's also going to have some Princess Curtilda, my character that I created for Rodney Smith's sketch comedy series. And she's an inappropriate fairy princess that has a kid's show and talks to kids about things. Things that she probably shouldn't talk to kids about and she's very funny.

And then it's going to have a couple pieces from death by sparkle as well. 

Matt Peiken: So you're resurrecting that too. You mentioned you wrote a children's book. I didn't know that. Talk about this children's book and what was the impetus behind it? 

Barbie Angell: When I was living in Illinois I did the bar poetry the rhyming stuff and a lot of it was funny and I was asked to do this first night at Illinois state, which is a nonalcoholic, I know, first night, yeah, not a nonalcoholic event for New Year's Eve.

Yep. And yeah. And they said half an hour of your bar poetry for the adults we'll pay you 75. This was in 1998. I think coming into 1998 and that's, that was a lot of money back then. I don't think it would pay my parking meter today, but so they loved it. And they're like, we want you back next year, but we also need a children's poet.

And I was like, what does that pay? And they said 75. And I'm like, I'm a children's poet which I wasn't but I had a year. And so I took swear words out of the bar poetry.

I don't know if I can swear on this show, but I took like BS out and I changed it to chaos. And they became children's poems. 

Matt Peiken: And you turn ed those into a book? 

Barbie Angell: Yeah. I continue to write children's poetry and that like Shel Silverstein and Maurice Sendak, I don't write for kids. I write and people say kids would like that. So I'm not ever talking down to them. Grateful Steps Publishing here in Asheville came to me after, I think it was the first year that I was named a best of Western North Carolina Poet for Mountain Xpress the Reader's Poll.

And they said actually, Laura Hope Gill said Shel Silverstein died, he died in 1999 and we've all been waiting for the next one and we think you're it. So I remember that quote forever.

They asked if I'd be willing to write a children's book and I also draw and so I illustrated it as well. They published it. It came out in 2012. 

I used to do a lot of children's shows with it and stuff at schools. I did my book release at the hop West. And I am doing a show with them for the book, actually, April 6. They're now in partnership with Malaprops. Malaprops carried the book and they're actually going to be at the show selling the book. 

Matt Peiken: So after your performance of uncensored and your book event, what do you have happening?

Barbie Angell: I had been operating under the last six months or so that 2024 was gonna be the last year of my life. That the CPTSD and the heart issues were going to kill me. And so I wrote my will. I had my son named my healthcare power of attorney. I even started planning the memorial service for after I died. It's going to be a big party. But this show was going to be to raise money for my son. And for me, ideally, but definitely for him. And with the extreme weight loss, I'm exhausted all the time, and then with the heart issues and stuff, I didn't know how much longer I'd be able to perform to get on stage and do the thing cause it takes a lot of energy. So that was the impetus for doing the show. People had been saying I should do a go fund me and I thought I'm a performer. It would be better for me to give people something for their money. 

So after getting out of the hospital, I decided now I want to thrive. I don't want to just survive. I'm actually doing the visualization thing that, you know, I've been hearing about since I moved to Asheville in 99.

I finally got it. So I'm visualizing this better life for myself where I can be happy and I can feel safe and I can have a chance to heal.

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