Before the trek to New York, Chicago audiences are blessed with a three-week-only engagement of I Am My Own Wife, the fascinating true story of German trans activist Charlotte Van Mahlsdorf who lived in Berlin during the Nazi and Communist eras. The powerhouse team, backed by producers About Face Theatre and the Museum of Contemporary Art, consists of Golden Globe-nominee for Quills, Doug Wright; New York actor, Jefferson Mays; and Emmy-nominated director of The Laramie Project, Moises Kaufman. I talked with all three on Windy City Radio about tackling this immense and extraordinary story.
Amy Matheny: How did you meet Charlotte and when did you think her story would make a good play?
Doug Wright: I met Charlotte right after the fall of The Wall in Berlin. It was 1992 so The Wall had been down for a couple of years. A friend of mine was there who was a journalist for U.S. News and World Report, and said, 'You have go meet this incredible character. She is the most eccentric figure that the Cold War ever birthed. This transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Communists as an open cross dresser for 65 years.' So I met her, spent about three years researching her life, had about 10 years of writer's block, and finally finished a draft of the play that will be performed in Chicago (at the MCA) before we take it to New York (at Playwright's Horizons). It's an exciting time!
AM: What got in your way?
DW: Well, in truth, Charlotte is an extremely heroic figure, but I uncovered some rather dark secrets in her past that previously hadn't been known, and I suddenly felt like the very act of writing a play would be a kind of betrayal. And then, conveniently, she died and I can tell the whole truth.
AM: So when did she pass?
DW: April 30, 2002, so, quite recently.
AM: You have written this show as a solo piece. There is one actor. But we meet many more characters than just Charlotte. Why is this a one-person show?
DW: Well Jefferson Mays is probably the most versatile actor I know, so when we went to the Sundance Theatre Lab in the summer of 2000 to start developing the piece, they told me I could budget one actor. I called Jefferson and said, 'I haven't even written the play yet, but maybe you could come to Sundance with us and start to investigate this.' When we finished rehearsal on Friday, there were 28 characters in the play. We're getting a new draft of the second act tomorrow and now, Jefferson, there are about 32. So, you'll have some surprises at rehearsal.
AM: Jefferson, is this an intimidating project? To play a Trans person when you are not, and the impact of the story?
Jefferson Mays: Oh, decidedly so. Yes. But I have discovered the singular pleasure of wearing a little black dirndl and pearls every evening.
DW: Which he does quite fetchingly!
AM: What is it like to work in this process where it is always changing?
JM: Well, this is the first I have learned of this! But, it's been truly wonderful. What draws me to this play is that it just gives a twist to the standard one-person show. Most I have seen are told pretty much from the point of view of one character. I'm thinking of the one-person show Tru or Full Gallop about Truman Capote or Diana Vreeland respectively, where one gets to dwell with one character for the course of one evening enjoying a string of anecdotes, funny and dramatic. What Doug has done is create a kind of Roshamon-esque portrait of this person, and it's more a biography through mosaic. You get these little fragments, glimpses of Charlotte in different situations, and different points of view. ... The audience is allowed to sift through the evidence, draw their own conclusions ... and judgments.
AM: How much research did you feel you needed to do?
JM: I didn't have the luxury of meeting [Charlotte], sadly, but there can be nothing more paralyzing than the truth. I have done research (of Germany at the time) through Doug and through my own reading and that's what drew me to this role initially, aside from the fact that Doug Wright wrote it. I am not sure anyone else would have considered me for it. I'm not German. I'm not 70 years old. I'm not gay. I'm not blond. It was an opportunity for me to discover someone who seems so completely 'other' to me.
AM: Doug, you needed a director to guide I Am My Own Wife to the stage.
DG: Yes. He is a very dear friend of mine, Moises Kaufman, who is best known for his play The Laramie Project which was made into a very successful HBO movie and got many Emmy nominations, and a really ground-breaking play about Oscar Wilde called Gross Indecency. He has taken on stories of historical incidence like the death of Matthew Shepard or historical personages like Oscar Wilde and created these tapestry plays. These plays draw from biographical sources and from personal anecdotes that actually stitch together the fabric of whole lives. And I wanted to take that same approach to Charlotte's life.
AM: Moises, how did Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde develop?
Moises Kaufman: When I read the transcripts of the trials, I discovered an Oscar I never knew, the social thinker. I always thought of him as the great satirist, the great epigrammatist, the court jester, but in his replies in the trial another Oscar emerges. An artist who was thinking rather seriously … of course, he would hate to be described as 'serious' … about art and society.
AM: With the murder of Shepherd, your company Tectonic Theatre Project, began the process of collecting information that became The Laramie Project.
MK: What interested me about the story of Matthew Shepard's murder was the fact that it became one of those historical markers. It became an event for our country that asked us to re-examine who we are as a nation and what we stand for. In this context, the idea of going to Laramie and interviewing the people of the town intrigued me as a way to record the ideas and discourses that are playing themselves out in our nation's heartland.
AM: As director of I Am My Own Wife, how does directing this solo show differ from the larger casts of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project?
MK: Well, Jefferson Mays is a larger cast! He plays close to 30 roles so it is like working with a larger cast. It is rather difficult right now because the cast is not really getting along. [Laughing] No. Seriously, Jefferson is a virtuoso actor. It is an absolute pleasure to work with him. I said recently in an interview that I now know what it must be like to be a conductor and conduct a piece of music with someone like Yo Yo Ma.
DW: The three of us have been working for almost three years on this piece. About Face Theatre is giving us the extraordinary opportunity to polish every moment to a high sheen before we have to go face the savage critics of Off-Broadway New York.
AM: What is the difference when looking at a story for the stage and for screen? And do you think this show would have the same kind of impact on screen?
DW: There was actually a documentary made about Charlotte Van Mahlsdorf by the radical gay filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim which played a lot of the film circuits here, particularly the gay and lesbian film festivals in the states, and it was titled, I Am My Own Woman, which is a different translation to a phrase that (Charlotte) would say to her mother. She was a transvestite turning 40 and her mother said, 'When are you going to get married?' and she said, 'Never. Ich bin meine eigene frau.' Which means 'I am my own wife, or woman.' This particular piece still might make a compelling film. For me, I am kind of a purist about the power of storytelling and narrative. I think if you are going to engage an audience intellectually or emotionally, you first have to get them on the edge of their seats, so we've really tried to create a kind of detective story about Charlotte. ... How did she function under these incredibly oppressive regimes?
AM: How important is telling the true stories of GLBT people to your aesthetic?
MK: I think that one of the things this play, I Am My Own Wife, asks is 'Who tells whose stories? How are stories recorded, constructed and told?' and perhaps, more importantly, 'Who will tell our stories?'
I Am My Own Wife runs Feb. 22-March 16; $20; MCA box office (312) 397-4010 or www.mcachicago.org . A first night discussion with Doug Wright, Moises Kaufman, and a special guest is held each Wednesday following the performance. There is also a Gala performance March 1. Other About Face Theatre New Plays are running in the festival though the above dates by playwrights Patricia Kane, Claudia Allen, Scott Duff, and Sarah Ruhl. See www.mcachicago.org under Calendar of Events / Performances.