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Former Scientologist Cathy Schenkelberg confronts the church on stage in Tampa

Cathy Schenkelberg rehearses Squeeze My Cans — Surviving Scientology at the Stageworks Theatre in Tampa. 
Published Apr. 8, 2017

TAMPA

There are some things Cathy Schenkelberg can't forget, memories that bring back the shame. They burn like lava from that volcano, the famous one on the cover of Dianetics, the bible of the Church of Scientololgy.

Her story of one of those moments takes place at a dinner in the mid-1990s: Schenkelberg and her daughter were at the church's Clearwater headquarters. It was the "celebrity's table," and Schenkelberg was a minor celebrity. She was one of the most prominent voice-over actors in the country, making nearly $400,000 a year in commercials. • A member since her early 20s, Schenkelberg said she had given increasing chunks of her income to the church, paying for courses in L. Ron Hubbard's way of thinking, expensive "auditing" sessions, and advanced several levels up the church hierarchy. The training, fellow members told her, would allow her to be free, to become truly herself. • There was always a price. More courses, more training, more everything. The price to sit at the celebrity table was $2,500. • "You're going to have to move," the maître d' said. "Somebody else wants the seat." • Then, she said, she saw Tom Cruise walking up to the table.

• • •

Schenkelberg, 47, left the church in 2009. Her one-woman show, Squeeze My Cans — Surviving Scientology, opens at Tampa's Stageworks Theatre today. Scientology representatives did not respond to a request for comment on this story, or the play.

The play is not the first time the church has been skewered by an entertainer. Recently, actor and former member Leah Remini has grabbed headlines with her A&E show Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. The church has been sent-up on South Park, and on stage, including Kyle Jarrow's A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant.

But perhaps never has a stage play mounted this kind of full-on assault of the church, as well as its reputation for heavy handed, even cultlike tactics. Schenkelberg's play has had sold-out runs in Chicago and Hollywood, Calif.

"I have to go back and forth and create for you, the audience, what it was like for me, the 20-something, being introduced to this wonderful religion," Schenkelberg said. "And then by the time you reach about 60 minutes, you see how what I thought I was getting into was chipped away, and the person that I had been was gone. I was a shell of myself."

Schenkelberg was chatty in the Stageworks lobby, even bubbly. She talks fast and is a toucher. She told a story she has told other reporters:

Some years ago, before Tom Cruise was dating Katie Holmes, Schenkelberg was asked to audition for a film role for Golden Era Productions, Scientology's audiovisual company at the church's Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. She answered an interviewer's preliminary questions.

"He asks me where I was from, what level I was on," Schenkelberg said. He then asked what she thought of Tom Cruise.

"I said, 'He's narcissistic and insecure. Can you be both? I think he's a baby.' "

The interview ended abruptly without a reading or script, she said. As Schenkelberg was leaving, a woman waiting in line told her the "audition" had been staged for Cruise's benefit, "to be his girlfriend."

• • •

She grew up in Omaha, Neb., the seventh of a firefighter and homemaker's 10 children. The family was Catholic. At 13, her older brother's car slammed into a pole. He died. The sound of squealing brakes still affects her physically.

"I remember people saying God chose him," she said. "And it made me think, 'Well, I don't like that god.' "

She majored in musical theater in college. But New York was far away, too far from her family. She settled in Chicago and started auditioning for shows. For a while, she thought about joining the Peace Corps.

At an audition, Schenkelberg ran into an actor she knew. They chatted, then the conversation got more serious. Schenkelberg shared that she was looking for her place in the world.

"Have you ever heard of Dianetics?" the friend asked.

In the past, she said, two Scientologists had tried to recruit her. This time, the messenger was right. Schenkelberg joined the church.

While she met her share of celebrities — she said she had a friendly relationship with John Travolta and shared a nanny with Cruise's sister — Schenkelberg was not part of Sea Org, the church's most rigorous and prestigious branch.

"I represent the Joe Schmoe who got in just because they wanted to better themselves or their lives or help others," she said.

Schenkelberg said she has always believed in reincarnation, a central tenet. As she worked her way up "Operating Thetan" (OT) levels over the years, paying tens of thousands of dollars, she came across material that didn't sit so well. The OT-3 level, for example, which introduces adherents to a montage of extraterrestrial characters, seemed a bit much.

Her voice-over work paid for her training. Her first gig, a Gerber commercial, paid $89,000. Schenkelberg went on to work for a slew of national clients in Chicago, then the commercial capital of the country. She can still recite the slogans.

"Michael Jordan," she said, with a down-home delivery. "He drives a Chevy Blazer, just like you."

There was a major campaign which called for a who'd-a-thunk-it tone. " 'Who's smarter? This woman shops at Sears Brand Central. This woman's a brain surgeon.'

"Jay Leno mocked it because of the juxtaposition," Schenkelberg said. "I made tons."

A short-lived relationship resulted in a daughter, whom Schenkelberg declines to name. Because the girl's father opposed Scientology, she said, church leaders persuaded Schenkelberg to move to Hollywood. She did, and her income dropped in half, then half again.

So why did she stay in the church?

"I've spent a half a million dollars on this, I'm not going to stop now," she said. She also believed if she stopped training, she would become sick or die.

"My dad would say, 'Are you okay?' And I'd go, 'Fine, Dad!' I couldn't let him know how horrified and frightened I was because I didn't know how to get out."

In the meantime, she said, the church had collected advance payments on courses. She lost her house. For a while, she said, she danced on the edge of suicide.

• • •

She decided to leave the church. She said she was able to get $17,000 in refunds, but had given the church more than $1 million and exhausted her daughter's college fund.

The church sent Schenkelberg a letter of disconnection severing her from Scientology and declared her a "suppressive person," she said. She spent three months on food stamps. She drove across the country, acting in regional theater or performing at spoken-word events. The one-woman show came about in 2015, its title derived from the "cans," or handles of an E-meter, the device used in auditing.

Schenkelberg gave her first performance at a workshop in Chicago in July 2016. All three performances sold out. She entered a fringe theater festival in Hollywood, with the same result.

She contacted Karla Hartley, the producing artistic director at Stageworks, who had directed Schenkelberg in God of Carnage at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

"I might not have agreed to do this if I hadn't worked with her," Hartley said. "But I like a good solo show. And I like to stir the pot."

Schenkelberg has booked Boca Raton next, and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. Schenkelberg said even sold-out runs barely put gas in the tank of her Ford. But the creativity does her good.

"My thing was not to take the church down," she said. "My thing was doing it for therapy."

The show has prompted letters and emails from appreciative strangers, people who lost contact with loved ones in the church. Every now and then, Schenkelberg said, the church still makes contact with her. She said she has had visitors stop by to conduct "outreach."

"They'll say, 'Hey Cathy, we saw your lights on, we want to tell you what's going on with the church,' " she said. "I'm like, 'Dude, it's midnight.' "

For more than two decades, she had spent everything on learning how to be a better Scientologist. When she talked about that, the bearer of all that wonderful news from Applebee's and Sears and Chevrolet went away. For the first time, her radio-perfect voice quavered.

"I still am constantly battling sadness and regret," she said. "But every time I do this show, a piece of me comes back. It's therapy, it really is.

"The sadness comes from the loss of time. If there's one thing about it, it's that I can't get back that time. Do I think I'll live another lifetime? Yeah, but this is the lifetime I want to live. I want to make a mark. Not for anybody else. For my daughter, for my family. And the time that I lost, that's what just eats me up."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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