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‘We All Need A Dose’ Of Sugar: Cheryl Strayed On ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ At The Grandel

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Holly Andres & Michelle Hand
Acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed (at left) and local actor Michelle Hand both joined host Sarah Fenske on Monday’s talk show.

When Michelle Hand first read “Tiny Beautiful Things,” the book spoke to her on a personal level. The book compiles highlights from “Dear Sugar,” the online advice column that acclaimed author Cheryl Strayed wrote anonymously from 2010 to 2012, offering brutally honest yet deeply kind words of wisdom as Strayed detailed her own struggles and offered words of hope.

For Hand, a St. Louis-based actor, part of the appeal is that Sugar “is never trying to tell anyone what to do with their life.”

Cheryl Strayed is the acclaimed author of "Torch" (2006), "Wild" (2012), "Tiny Beautiful Things" (2012) and "Brave Enough" (2015).
Joni Kabana

Hand explained, “[She’s] rather just pointing them in the direction of what Sugar’s own life experiences have taught her, as well as that place within us where if we get really quiet and we listen, we know what to do. We know what the true thing is to do. And Sugar just has this wonderful way of guiding people towards that place, even if they don’t necessarily want to go there themselves.”

Like millions of other devoted readers, Hand has gone on to enjoy more of Strayed’s oeuvre, from her bestselling memoir “Wild” to her “Dear Sugars” podcast. But on July 29, Hand’s connection with Strayed will morph into something else entirely: She will portray Sugar onstage in the St. Louis premiere of Nia Vardalos’ adaptation of “Tiny Beautiful Things.”

The production marks the pandemic-era comeback of local nonprofit theater company Max & Louie Productions, with shows running at the Grandel July 29 to Aug. 8.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, both Hand and Strayed joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss the play that promises to illuminate, in its jacket copy, “reaching when you’re stuck, healing when you're broken, and finding the courage to take on the questions that have no answers.”

Strayed recounted how when she first started writing the advice column, she took on the role with a sense of seriousness — and also real trepidation.

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Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis-based actor Michelle Hand is excited to make her first appearance with Max & Louie Productions. Opening night of "Tiny Beautiful Things" is Thursday.

“Especially back then, we really associated the internet with kind of snark,” Strayed explained, “and to really be almost mocking people who would be asking for advice. And I just wanted to be sincere and openhearted. And I can only say [that] I wasn’t trying to turn the advice column on its head, but I was trying to write the column as if it were the most important thing I’d ever written.”

Strayed described watching the letters’ evolution into a stage production, one that has a clear narrative arc and takes place over the course of a single evening.

“She did a beautiful job adapting it,” the author said of Vardalos’ work. “[And] it was really born of so many conversations and trial and error — it was wonderful to be part of that creative process.”

Hand pointed out that Max & Louie’s production of “Tiny Beautiful Things” comes at a fitting moment.

“This is a play about people sitting at home isolated, in front of their computer screens, reaching out to somebody to say, ‘I need help. I need to feel less alone. I need to feel understood. I need some guidance,’” the actor said. “And isn’t that what a lot of us have been doing for the last year and a half? Sitting at home, trying to reach out and connect in ways that are available to us?”

During the conversation, Strayed opened up about one of her own forays into such connection during the COVID-19 pandemic, a podcast with the New York Times called “Sugar Calling.”

“When [the paper] first approached me, they basically wanted me to bring back the advice podcast, and I said, ‘I don’t want to give advice. I want to seek it. And I want to seek it from a specific group of people — essentially writers who I’ve turned to at times when I needed some comfort or illumination or consolation.”

Cheryl Strayed On Watching Her 'Dear Sugar' Advice Column Became A Play
Listen as the acclaimed author talks with St. Louis-based actor Michelle Hand and host Sarah Fenske.

Throughout April and May 2020, Strayed recorded phone calls with writers over age 60, asking them what they were doing as shutdowns, grief and uncertainty dominated daily life — and how they felt about everything.

“What so many of these people said who I called — people like Margaret Atwood and Joy Harjo and Amy Tan and George Saunders — they gave me a sense of perspective and said, ‘Hard times come, good times will come again, hard times will come again after that,’” Strayed recalled. “That sense of, ‘Life is long, and that we can continue to step through it if we keep putting one foot in front of the other.’”

A listener named Jonna left the talk show team a voicemail addressed to Strayed.

“I read that book [“Wild”], and I had never been hiking before in my whole life,” Jonna said. “Now hiking is one of my favorite things to do, and you can find me quite frequently at Castlewood State Park. And I just want to thank her, because she opened my eyes to a wonderful new hobby.”

Another listener, Kimberly, wrote on the St. Louis on the Air Facebook page: “Strayed’s words have gotten me through so many difficult times that to HEAR her has given me a bright spot in a not-so-bright summer.”

Strayed addressed both listeners directly on air.

“Both of those messages just absolutely warm my heart,” the author said, “[and] what both of you have said about now being a really vital time to hear these words, which essentially boil down to: you are not alone, that life is full of suffering but it’s full of beauty as well, that love is at the core of the best things we are. … I do think we all need a dose of that right now. It’s been a hard time.”

Related Event
What: Max & Louie Productions’ “Tiny Beautiful Things”
When: Nightly shows Thursday through Aug. 8
Where: The Grandel Theatre
Tickets and more information available on the Max & Louie website.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Paola Rodriguez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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