Actor Lauren Elder brings her character to life in Theatre Calgary’s world premiere Mary and Max

For an actor, it is rare that the opportunity arises for a part to be written specifically with you in mind – that’s something that most actors can only dream of. Yet, this is exactly what happened for Lauren Elder when her friend and composer Bobby Cronin began creating the characters, songs and music for Mary and Max – A New Musical, having its world premiere at Theatre Calgary.

For Elder, working with Cronin throughout the creation process over the past four years, and having him write the character of Mary with her in mind, makes this performance more special.

“It’s probably the most amazing theatrical experience of my life thus far,” says Elder, “because I have gotten to know (Mary) so intimately. It’s almost seamless at this point – I go up there and I just live Mary’s life because I know her so well … it’s an amazing gift”

Mary and Max tells the story of two unlikely pen pals who form a unique friendship across the miles when they both seem to need a friend most. Max is a 44-year-old man with Asperger syndrome living in New York and Mary is a lonely 10-year-old girl in Melbourne, and through their correspondence they are able to affect each other’s lives.

Of her character, Elder explains: “She’s awkward, she is a bit of an outsider, but she’s also got a huge heart and so much love that she wants to give, and also wants to receive.”

While Elder plays an older Mary, young Mary is played by Katie McMillan, and the two actors hit it off immediately upon meeting earlier this year after Cronin announced to Elder that he had found “young Lauren” when casting the role. The similarities between the two actors definitely helps create a seamless transition between Marys, with McMillan playing her until the age of 16 and Elder picking Mary up at 17.

“We’ve both been able to watch each other a lot,” says Elder, “since (McMillan) plays Mary for most of the first act, I (was able) to sit back and just watch what she was doing — how she was moving her body, how she was breathing — and I brought that into my performance. When we did Act Two (McMillan) started watching me and trying to bring some of those things into her movement in Act One … It’s really cool to have that kinship.”

Having a character created with you in mind, helping to develop and build that character over the years, to bringing the role to the stage at its world premiere is an unparalleled opportunity, with Elder’s portrayal, as well as the rest of the cast, being the template for all future performances. And with Bobby Cronin’s wonderful writing, Elder believes it will resonate with audiences. “The biggest thing is (Cronin) just writes from his heart, and so that’s why it works. It’s all there in the writing.”

Mary and Max – A New Musical runs until Nov. 11 at the Max Bell Theatre. 

Kari Watson is a writer and former Listings Editor of FFWD Weekly, and has continued to bring The Culture Cycle event listings to Calgary through theYYSCENE. Contact her at