Calgary Herald preview piece for I Am My Own Wife
by Stephen Hunt, April 24 2013 for Calgary Herald’s Entertainment Section.
That’s what happened to playwright Doug Wright a decade ago, when he discovered the story of Charlotte von Mahsdorf, a transgendered East German antiques dealer who lived openly — and survived — in a small town in East Germany for decades during the Second World War and Communist era.
Charlotta’s unique life story became the inspiration behind I Am My Own Wife, Wright’s Pulitzer-Prize winning solo show that opens Friday at Motel in the Epcor Centre.
Calgary actor — and co-founder of the show’s producer, the Third Street Theatre — Paul Welch has the daunting task of playing not only Charlotte, but 35 other characters, in I Am My Own Wife.
Not only that, but in Charlotte, he must play a character who embodies queer culture at the same time she betrays it.
Charlotte’s betrayal – we won’t reveal it here! – was something Wright discovered only after he was well into writing about her, and it was so shattering for the playwright that he figured it had torpedoed his play, and put it aside – for six years.
However, years later, Wright tried another draft of the play, only he included himself and his tortured journey with her story in the script.
That’s the twist that turns I Am My Own Wife less into a story about the challenges of Charlotte’s life and more into one about how a playwright reconciles the imperfections of his protagonist’s life.
That turns I Am My Own Wife into a solo show that’s as much about the storytelling process as it is about a transgendered East German antiques dealer — or at least makes it a little bit of both, Welch says.
“What’s unconventional about the show,” he says, “is . . . how does the playwright reconcile his desires with reality and his facts?
“He’s (Wright) got all these aspirations of wanting her (Charlotte) to be the pinnacle of queer culture — this perfect, untouchable individual who’s preserved history through (one of) the most oppressive regimes in the world.
“But then,” he adds, “she’s a human being, too.”
For director Kevin McKendrick, that’s exactly what turns I am My Own Wife into a transformative piece of playwriting.
“What I hope comes through most in this production is that the humanity of these characters,” he says. “The story is incredible, the individual anecdotes about surviving the Nazis, surviving the Stasi, are all incredibly important. But it’s the humanity of the people and the realization of how Charlotte had affected (the playwright’s) own growth that probably brings it back to her story and allows him to overlook her flaws.”
For McKendrick, the essence of the show lies in its exploration of identity.
“We have an idea of who Bill Clinton’s identity is, or was,” he says, “and that was shattered somewhat for some — it was a betrayal they could never quite get over — but the fact is, he’s still a very decent human being, regardless of his flaws.
“In North American culture in particular,” he adds, “we are really hung up on this idea of the idealized individuals as our leaders we look to for guidance.
“Identity carried so much currency in their (Communist East German) society,” he adds, “and ours as well I think, to a somewhat lesser degree, but it’s a fascinating theme for the world we’re in.”
It’s the second production by Third Street Theatre, a new company created by Welch and Jonathan Brower dedicated to presenting queer themed theatre.
The company’s first show, This is How I Left, a performance creation produced over the Easter weekend, produced a surprising result for the neophyte company: a totally sold-out venue.
“That was exciting to us, and it was humbling,” says Welch. “Five performances over Easter weekend and there was a Flames game Friday, and we had to add 15 seats!”
Less than a month later, the company is back with a followup show Welch hopes will make everyone connect a little more readily to those who don’t exist in the mainstream of society.
“It’s a way of sharing a touching story and making people think, to relate to something that’s outside (their own experience),” he says.
“Oftentimes, we want to destroy the other rather than learn from the other,” he adds, “and to have that dialogue and find common ground, which creates understanding — that’s how we (as a society) move forward.”
Third Street Theatre presents I Am My Own Wife
Motel theatre until May 4. Thirdstreet.ca