Faith Salie’s Approval Junkie takes the Hertz Stage at the Alliance Theatre in April.
By Julie Bookman
Photos by Greg Mooney
Warning: Audience members, especially women who strive to have it all, do it all, and do it all very well, are in danger of becoming bobble heads while watching Approval Junkie, Faith Salie’s new one-woman show. Yes, there’s that much stuff with which to relate. Get ready to nod up and down a whole heckuva lot. Salie is an actress, comedian, Emmy Award-winning journalist, author, CBS News Sunday Morning contributor, and longtime quick-witted panelist on National Public Radio’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!
Phew, that’s a lot. Plus, she has a solid marriage and two young children. A Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard who holds a doctorate in literature from Oxford University in England, Salie is also a self-diagnosed “approval junkie,” now in recovery. In her craving-approval heyday, she made not
one, not two, but three Curious George cakes for her two-year-old’s birthday — to improve the odds that one would turn out OK. Finally, just a few years ago, she discovered that coming through for herself first, rather than for everyone else in her orbit, is the better deal: much more fulfilling, far less exasperating.
Salie, who was raised in Dunwoody, explored many aspects of her quest for affirmation in Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much, a 2016 collection of thought-provoking essays filled with her trademark self-deprecating humor. Bestselling author Annabelle Gurwitch
praised the book for “such vulnerability and insight into our flawed human condition,” while Publisher’s Weekly pegged it as “stand-up routines put to the page.” Susan V. Booth, artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, read Approval Junkie and hurried to get in touch via email. She asked Salie if she had considered adapting her book into a one-woman show. Salie, now 47, had done a fair amount of acting on both stage and screen prior to this decade. In musical theater, she played Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Her TV series credits range from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” in the late 1990s, to a leading role on “Significant Others” in 2004. “There’s still an actor deep inside me who misses performing a show,” she says. “Does it count as acting if you’re playing yourself?”
Once Booth suggested the idea, Salie felt that “it was like the seed was somewhere inside me and Susan was giving me the sunlight and the water.” What really got to her, she says, is the manner in which Booth signed that initial email: “Thanking you for a book I love and will make my daughter read.” Salie felt humbled and honored. “That’s about the most generous thing you can do, to pass on someone else’s story. I’m so grateful that my deeply specific stories seem to resonate. It’s some kind of alchemy. What people are really responding to is what Susan and I both refer to as ‘living nakedly human publicly.’”
The things we humans do “in the pursuit of being loved, heard, seen, understood, are often the most meaningful moments of our lives, even if they are painful, embarrassing, misguided,” Salie says. The actions we take in an effort to win kudos from others and ourselves “are dramatic manifestations of who we are, what we want, and whom we love and how we love.” Just as she did in the book, Salie ends her show with a message to her daughter Minerva, now 5. While both her book and its stage adaptation contain abundant comedy, don’t be surprised to be weeping at the end of either. After all, the best comedy is rooted in hard truths and matters that pang the heart.
Directed by Amanda Watkins, the Alliance’s world premiere of Approval Junkie [subtitled: My Heartfelt (And Occasionally Inappropriate) Quest to Please Just About Everyone, And Ultimately Myself] isn’t merely another milestone in Salie’s career. It also represents a meaningful homecoming for her. A 1989 graduate of North Springs High (where she competed to become Miss Aphrodite and “was in it to win it”), Salie originally set out to be an actress. By age 12, she regularly performed around town, with Atlanta Workshop Players, Stage Door Players, Onstage Atlanta, and more.
“The Alliance Theatre was Broadway to me when I was growing up,” she says. “Seeing shows there made me want to become an actor. Just the thought of returning to the Alliance as the performer I never got to be is a childhood dream fulfilled.” She currently resides in a New York City apartment, so another bonus of relocating to Atlanta for a couple of months is that her kids (son Augustus is 7), will get to experience living in a house and romping in its yard. “They are soooo excited. I’m choked up just thinking about bringing my kids to the place where I came of age.” In adapting her book into a play, Salie had to learn how to think of herself as a dramatic character, as “someone flawed, but
a character with an arc.” Director Watkins, she adds, cautioned her “not to put buttons on things,” meaning, not to sew up her stories too quickly, “so that the audience has a whole 90-minute journey that’s more satisfying
for them than the wrap-up of an essay.”
Throughout the course of Approval Junkie, Salie recounts episodes that fed into her tendency to be an over-approval seeker. Many parents will relate to the emotionally grueling period when she tried to get her son into a top-tier kindergarten. There’s also a segment about her brief and disastrous first marriage to a man now called her “wasband.” He didn’t want to have sex with her and suggested she go through an exorcism to banish a darkness inside her. Did she do such a thing? You’ll find out in this show. To give more away would be a disservice to anyone who’s about to experience Approval Junkie. What’s important to grasp is that Salie’s notion of having ever labeled herself an approval junkie is not prescriptive. “I’m not naming it as a way to say ‘here’s how not to be one,’” she explains. Moreover, “it’s something to recognize in yourself and then to harness. You can stretch, challenge, embarrass yourself, but you are always moving forward. We are built for validation and there’s no shame in admitting that.”
Approval Junkie runs from April 5 – 28 at the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage. Discount tickets at PoshDealz.com.