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Solo festival show sheds light on Scientology from former member

Cathy Schenkelberg stars in "Squeeze My Cans" at the Greenhouse Theater Center.

When Cathy Schenkelberg was in her early 20s, like many of her peers, she was searching for some meaning in her life, a way to give back, a way to make the world a better place. So when she interviewed for the Peace Corps, it felt like a step in the right direction.

‘Squeeze My Cans’

When: To July 24

Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln

Tickets: $25

Info: greenhousetheater.org

But instead, Schenkelberg went in what she now sees as the opposite direction and began a long and troubling relationship with Scientology, the cult-like religion that courts big names in Hollywood (Tom Cruise, John Travolta) but also recruits everyday people. Now the actress is telling her side of the Scientology experience in her one-woman show, “Squeeze My Cans,” a cautionary tale that addresses the strange pull of Scientology on the vulnerable.

The 75-minute show, which is part of Solo Celebration at the Greenhouse Theater (an earlier version debuted at Lifeline Theatre’s Fillet of Solo Festival), details how Schenkelberg was indoctrinated into the Scientology labyrinth, how she got out and how difficult that was to accomplish. Where the recent documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief“ digs into the intricate inner working of Scientology, “Squeeze My Cans,” is a more personal journey that is both humorous and shocking.

“It’s a dark and funny show,” Schenkelberg says. “Scientology told me exactly what I wanted to hear. ‘You want to help the planet; we are the group. We are the only hope for mankind.’ And I believed it all.”

Director Shirley Anderson feels the show is “powerful in its subversiveness.” Schenkelberg simply tells her story and shows the events as they happened.

“Cathy doesn’t try to damn or blame this organization, but merely shows how and why she got so sucked in,” Anderson adds. “I believe there is power in allowing an audience to draw their own conclusions.”

Schenkelberg was 23, fresh out of college and working as an actress/waitress in Chicago when she signed up for her first Scientology auditing course. (The show’s title refers to the electronic device that’s like a lie detector and used to counsel or audit a person.)

“I was spiritually searching,” recalls Schenkelberg. “I was attending a Methodist church but also drumming on North Ave. beach and studying crystals. And then a woman I really admired introduced me to Scientology and I thought it sounded cool. Now I look back and realize how vulnerable I was at that age.”

That first course cost her $35. By the end of her 18 years in Scientology, Schenkelberg says she had spent an unbelievable $983,000 (this amount is tallied on a board as her story unfolds): “I was slowly indoctrinated, and there was always another more expensive level that was being sold as very important. It was very hard to walk away.”

Deep into her years in Scientology, Schenkelberg was on a career high making well into the six figures doing voice overs and commercial work. She also was Pepper the Clown on “The Bozo Show.” (“The church actually pinpointed Bozo as a ‘suppressive person’,” she says with a laugh, referring to the term Scientology uses to describe “antisocial personalities.”)

In the show, Schenkelberg demonstrates how Scientology strips away everything in a person’s life not connected to the church until there is nothing left for them but to serve the organization. She had reached the upper levels of Scientology’s courses but she says when she experienced a downward swing in her career and the money dried up she was shunned by the religion.

“There was no more money to get from me and that’s when I really saw that I was in a group that was truly evil,” she says, adding, “Their claim to be ‘the only hope for mankind’ was false.”

Schenkelberg’s story is a relatable cautionary tale, notes Anderson.

“My greatest hope is to try to expose some of these mind-control techniques which are pervasive in many cultures and organizations not just Scientology so that anyone experiencing Cathy’s story might say to themselves, ‘That happened to me,’ or ‘That could happen to me’ or ‘I won’t let that happen to me’.”

Schenkelberg says she uses “Squeeze My Cans” as her own unique form of therapy.

“I’m not upset about the money but I am upset about all the lost time. That makes me the saddest,” she says. “It’s the one thing I battle with because I can’t get those years back. Now I’ve returned to acting and I’m making up for lost time. It’s therapy for my soul.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.