Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Actress with MS tries to aid other artists with MS through her Mookie Jam Foundation

Media dis&dat note: I saw the off-Broadway dark comedy "Mistakes Were Made" on Jan.5. Excellent, by the way. The Esther character is played by Mierka Girten, who has MS and a foundation to benefit artists with MS. (Girten is pictured with the cast for "Mistakes Were Made.")

The following article is from TimeOut Chicago in July 2010:

In her bio on, Mierka Girten states that she uses comedy to cope with multiple sclerosis. Noting that she may lose her health insurance in September, Girten, a veteran Chicago actor and ensemble member at A Red Orchid Theatre, tells us, “I’m just going to see every doctor I know in August. Just go in for a tune-up: ‘Could you just check my rotator cuff? No, it feels fine, but just check it?’”

Although currently in remission, the neurological disease still affects her. “Even though you can’t see that I have MS, I can feel it every day,” she explains. She sometimes loses her balance or has seizures. Her memory has been affected, too: The 40-year-old recalls a time in the ’90s when she lost track of where she parked her car. For eight months. “It was very close to my house—but not close enough,” Girten says, a mischievous gleam in her eye.

Born in Cincinnati (“the Paris of the Midwest,” she deadpans), Girten moved here in 1992 to study acting at DePaul. Learning she had MS in April 1993 was just the beginning of several rough years. Her mom also developed MS, which was even harder for Girten than her own diagnosis; in 1995, the actor attempted suicide.

Eventually, Girten—known to friends as “Mookie”—channeled her grief, hope and creativity into two efforts: mounting a one-woman show about her life, With or Without Wings (first performed in 2001), and establishing the Mookie Jam Foundation, dedicated to helping artists with MS. On Wednesday 28, the organization presents its tenth annual Mookie Jam, a fund-raiser featuring a variety of Chicago performers and a silent auction. In addition to Girten, who’ll emcee, the talent includes renowned improv duo TJ and Dave, Joan Crawford (as channeled by David Cerda of Hell in a Handbag and the Joans) and singer-actor Rebecca Finnegan. Girten and Finnegan became best friends as teenagers, when they both attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati—as did musician Brando Triantafillou, Girten’s husband of 13 years.

“As an artist, it’s my duty to make life better for somebody,” Girten says. Every year, the Jam awards several thousand dollars to an individual artist with MS. Past recipients include former Chicago actor Jonathan McClain (now L.A.-based) and Andy Kopsa, a writer from Iowa. This year’s grantee is Indiana native Stacie Anderson, a 40-year-old jewelry maker who lives in Alaska, where she also works a seasonal job at Denali National Park.

“Finding and paying for medical insurance is my primary financial concern and my greatest source of stress,” says Anderson, who was diagnosed 12 years ago. Her MS has been mostly in remission, although it flared up in June, when her equilibrium and vision began to fail and she experienced numbness in her face and mouth. “So far, I’ve been lucky and made a full recovery each time.”

Girten has health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild—for now. She has to maintain $10,400 of paid onscreen work annually to keep the coverage, and currently she’s falling short. “If I get a huge commercial soon, I’ll be able to keep it,” she says.

While Girten says she used to feel as if she had to represent everyone with MS, today she’s satisfied to let others tell their own stories. “I will make Stacie Anderson get onstage and talk about how MS sucks,” Girten says. “And the audience will leave knowing that they’ve helped someone that day.”