Addison — Among the filmed North Texas productions we’ve seen since the pandemic shutdowns, Bob Hess has been in the two of the best (granted, there has only been a handful of them so far). First was Lucy Kirkwood’s haunting The Children at Stage West, which was on its opening weekend when Everything Changed (and was expertly filmed in anticipation of our new streamed theater reality). Even before The Children started rehearsals, Hess had been cast in Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning one-man play I Am My Own Wife at WaterTower Theatre. After the production was postponed, the decision was made to film it at the Terry Martin Mainstage at the Addison Theatre Centre, using safety protocols for the crew and performer, and Zoom for early production meetings and rehearsals.
The finished product — complete with a full set by Brian Clinnin, costumes by Drenda Lewis, sound by Marco Salinas, lighting by Ryan Burkle, and detailed props by Hillary Collazo Abbott — was performed with no audience and filmed by local filmmakers and cinematographers Jeremy and Brittany Bay of Bay Productions, with help from David Singer, the co-founder and CEO at Academy of Storytellers and Story and Heart “to translate this production into a filmed theatrical event.” Kudos to WTT for having an understudy, Nick Moore, even knowing that this would not be a typical run for nightly audiences.
Under the direction of Ashley Puckett Gonzales, the results are astounding. It’s a gorgeous production, handsomely filmed and rendered with great empathy and care by Hess, one of North Texas’ finest acting talents.
Wright, a Dallas native who grew up in Highland Park and headed to New York as soon as he could, spent years researching and writing this play, a profile of Charlotte van Mahlsorf, a transgender woman who lived under the Nazi regime in East Berlin and then under the Russian Stasi in East Germany during the Cold War. She collected 19th century household items and opened a museum and maintained a basement bar frequented by the LGBT community. Back then, “transgender” was not a common term. In the play, others refer to her as a “transvestite,” a word she also uses. In the piece, Wright also chronicles his journey to capture his muse in words and ideas. His final thoughts at the end, about his efforts to “curate” her story in some way, profoundly speaks of our need to preserve stories and history.
The role, originally played by Jefferson Mays off-Broadway in 2003 and then on Broadway later that year (I saw the off-Broadway production), calls for the performer to play about 30 other characters with Wright and John Marks, a Texan who turned Wright onto this story, also playing major roles. There has been much discussion about whether the role should be played by a trans actor, and that finally happened in 2019 in an Atlanta production. In the Q&A below, Hess (a cisgender gay man) and Gonzales talk about the casting and include some words from Wright (also a cis gay man), who met — in person and online — with both of them.
The transitions between characters in this play are subtle and rely mostly on accents, with minor postural and gestural changes. Hess’ mobility between the roles is like clockwork. His accents and vocal tones are impeccable — not just for Mahlsdorf, but also for Wright, Marks, and various Germans, Russians and Americans. In one scene, international reporters descend upon Charlotte. Having even one line by Japanese, Indian and French reporters uttered by a white actor could be cringey, but Hess handles them with no hint of exaggeration.
The streaming production is available through Aug. 2, and well worth it. If we can’t witness live theater in person right now, this is the kind of alternate viewing experience that almost makes the loss of the live experience bearable.
TheaterJones: Ashley, Bob was cast in the show before the pandemic shutdowns began. What conversations did you and WTT leaders/board have about the prospects of doing it even when it became apparent that producing theater for a live audience would not return any time soon?
Ashley Puckett Gonzales: I started preparing for this show about 18 months ago and we wanted to cast early because it's such a huge task for the actor. Shane [Peterman, WaterTower’s Artistic Director] called me, I believe in February, well before any shutdown and said they were looking at contingencies. Obviously, we were hopeful that we could proceed normally, or at least postpone and proceed but clearly that wasn't an option. There were various models discussed I'm sure. Shane is a very smart, creative thinker. We landed here because this was the only option that kept folks safe but still allowed us to produce a beautiful piece.
Any one-person show feels ideal for this kind of format; but of course, any production is more than an actor.
Why is this show ideal for a streamed performance?
Bob Hess: As someone who is very concerned with safety and would not, given our current circumstances, make a video recording, let alone do a live performance, of any show that involved another actor, the fact that this project involved a single actor and that there would be no audience members in attendance made me feel it was achievable. The theater was very respectful of what I asked for in order to feel safe. As for the transition of the piece itself to video, I think there is an intimacy in the show (much of it involves very personal, honest conversations between two people), so I am hopeful this will translate well to the film medium.
APG: I think every show has challenges when transferring to a digital medium. Obviously, it's designed for live production but because it's only one actor we can follow his journey more clearly and translate it better than, say, a huge tap number. Also, Bob is so skilled that he can translate well to the different process.
Ashley, what were the challenges of directing in this way? How were C19 guidelines implemented for rehearsals, working with the design team, tech, etc.?
APG: All of our production meetings were held on Zoom, which we'd already done some of since I was in NYC during the original pre-production time. The hardest thing was pausing the process and then trying to jump back in with new parameters. Both artistic and safety.
WTT did an excellent job of designing and upholding safety protocols. Temperature checks were required to enter the building; masks too, of course. We also sanitized hands at the entrance to the building. There were limits to the number of folks allowed in the space. We always maintained distance and Bob and I had dressing rooms that no one entered but us. No one but Bob handled his props and costumes and things were regularly disinfected.
Are you in contact with Doug Wright? Any insights from him you care to share?
BH: I was able, with the assistance of University of North Texas research funds (I am on a tenure track there now), to visit Doug in NYC in December. He is such a generous, gracious, thoughtful man, and I spent an entire evening visiting with him — beginning with seeing his husband, David, in a holiday cabaret show and meeting many of Doug’s closest friends, which was so cool. His accounts of the process of creating this piece, when they came from the writer himself, were so personal. As he talked about it, I felt like I was “in the room where it happened!” His life was profoundly changed by meeting this amazing woman and hearing her story. It was very clear, in listening him talk about her, just how powerful of an experience it was.
APG: Doug Wright is one of the loveliest people I have ever met. He has been incredibly supportive and open. We had coffee and macarons before the end of the world and talked a lot about Charlotte and the structure of the play. I know he spent hours with Bob. He [told me not to] feel constrained by past productions. “Make it your own. And, if you get lost, remember that this is a love story between Doug and Charlotte. Infatuation, disillusionment and acceptance of humanity are part of that journey.”
Bob, did you see Jefferson Mays do it, or have you seen any productions?
BH: I saw Jefferson Mays do the show on Broadway, and I thought he was absolutely wonderful. A well-deserved standing ovation from the Broadway audience.
APG: I was certainly aware of the play, but I do not like to watch productions of something that I'm in process on. I did research in other ways like talking to Doug, but I feel if I see too many things then I start to think that there's a right way and a wrong way instead of this is the way that works for me and the space etc. to do it. Someone else would do it differently. One is not more valid than the other. To me that's the fun of theatre. How are you solving the problems in this play differently than me? That's why it's wonderful to see different productions of old favorites. I'd love to watch other productions now though!
Bob, how did you first approach playing Charlotte, and the other characters; and what has changed, if anything, the more you've gotten to know the characters?
BH: I took each of the 30+ characters one at a time and just looked at who they were as far as back story and what the text tells us about them. Then I had to fill in the rest of the details from my own imagination. For some of them, you get very little (such as one scene in which Charlotte is dogged by a multitude of reporters from differing countries in a press conference — which Doug has no problem admitting came totally out of Jefferson's facility with accents). Once I looked at what the character's truth was, I sought a physical and vocal life that I felt worked.
I played around with a lot of different takes on each of them. Given the fact that both Doug and Charlotte are inspired by people of whom we can see actual footage (and both of whose voices are actually heard at the end of the play), I had to look at this for inspiration. Doug is, again, so gracious, and he told me to not feel obligated to that at all — that he thought it would still play if the voices on the tape recorder in the end were considerably different than the ones I used.
Having met Doug personally, the writing of the play seemed to perfectly capture his essence. He really wrote himself so perfectly. What struck me more and more about Charlotte, as I dug deeper and deeper was how clever, bewitching, funny, and sometimes naughty she was. I could see "the twinkle in her eye" in the writing, and I chose to lean on that a great deal in the performing of it. And, of course, there was all that German that I had to spout. I do not speak German, and I really wanted to be as accurate as I could. I speak French, and it has always been a pet peeve of mine to hear people mispronounce French onstage. So, I had to get the German as right as I could. That took a lot of effort and consultation from a German professor at UNT. Months of work, literally. I began learning these lines last October. At least it wasn’t Old English, which I had to deliver in a dramatization of Beowulf at [Dallas Theater Center] back in the ’80s!
There are subtle transitions between characters, with only gestures and tone changed. How is that different considering you now have an audience of digital watchers? In the editing, there would be changes to zoom in for close-ups, for instance.
BH: Two things helped me here. First, the writing is just so specific and clear — the more I learned the words, the more it seemed like a piece of beautifully written music. Second, Ashley, knowing this was going to be a filmed piece, really stressed the clarity of the character changes. I was frequently saying, in rehearsal, "Is that all clear and specific enough?" The proximity of the camera demanded my vocal and physical nuances be very easily discerned by the viewer.
APG: It was very important to me that we keep this firmly rooted as a theatre piece put on film. You'd never make a film with this conceit (1 actor, 37 characters) and it is incredible to watch Bob work. It would not do the play nor Bob justice to not acknowledge the theatricality. That being said, yes, we do have to consider the film aspect. The biggest change was lighting. The camera cannot follow light shifts and my concept was very reliant on lights. I cannot praise Ryan Burkle (lighting designer) enough. He managed to get the feel without affecting the camera. We've chosen to do mostly angle changes to tell the story and have only very selectively used close-ups. We're also fortunate that Bob is skilled as a film actor as well as a stage actor. He translates beautifully. The designers, Marco Salinas [sound], Brian Clinnin [scenic], Hillary Collazo Abbott, and Ryan Burkle [lighting], were an absolute dream team, and everyone rolled with the challenges with such grace.
What does this show have to say to 21st century audiences, and about where we are right now in America — even though this story is set in Germany during the Cold War.
BH: I think the current message is a powerful and resonant one in 2020. Last fall, I had the benefit of doing a piece from the show as a Guest Artist in a UNT English Department class called "Gender in Modern American Drama." This visit included a discussion about the play with the students, many of whom revealed themselves, during the discourse, to be at various places on the spectrum of gender and sexuality. I was genuinely overwhelmed by their response to the play, and immediately went back to my office to share their comments with Doug via email.
He, too, was quite moved. The piece gives voice to so many marginalized groups of people — gay and trans men and women, Jews, refugees, even women in general. It makes profound statements about survival of and resistance to repressive regimes, attitudes, and cultures. During our rehearsals, as racial tensions were rising in America, as immigrants were still being confronted in public, and as the Supreme Court was deciding if LGBTQ Americans could be fired solely for who they were, I was stunned at how the spirit of all that was reflected in the refusal of the characters in the story to settle or accept their oppression as normal.
At the age of 65, Charlotte confronts a neo-Nazi with an axe and screams at him defiantly that she has known him since she was 16 years old, and is done with him and his kind. It was so moving to me personally to do that section of the play because I saw such a universality — most of us (I hope) are so done with this shit. Whenever I hear the defense of bigotry as “You don’t know me!” I recall Charlotte’s observation that “I have known you since I was a kid.” The comments of the UNT students underscored this sentiment. When someone in the discussion asked the question about Charlotte's Stasi involvement, one student insisted, "Why does it matter? That is so secondary to the fact that the play gives a trans woman, her lesbian aunt, her gay art collector friend, and a gay playwright a voice.”
APG: Oh my word, where to begin. The play speaks to us for a multitude of reasons. Bigotry, hatred, cancel culture, self-acceptance... Ultimately, this play is relevant, and always will be, because it reminds us of our common humanity. Through Doug's eyes we see this remarkable person. We fall in love with her, as he did, and we learn to accept that human frailty is part of being human. We put ourselves in her place and wonder what we would've chosen in her circumstances and find that perhaps our differences aren't so insurmountable.
Let’s talk about casting and gender identity representation. It wasn't until 2019 that a trans person was cast in a professional production of this play (in Atlanta). The show has most often been cast with a cisgender white man; Jefferson Mays is straight, and Bob is a cis gay man. Charlotte was a trans woman, certainly before we had the terms we have today. Given that there are myriad characters, it seems that any nonbinary actor with the necessary skills could play it; even a cis woman.
What conversations on this topic did you have, Ashley, before casting Bob? How do address the criticisms — which are valid — about having a cis male actor in a trans woman role? Did any nonbinary actors audition, or were they asked, aside from a general casting notice of “looking for all types.”
BH: Outside of auditioning for the show, I was not involved in the casting, but I absolutely remember noting that the audition announcement was open to all gender identities and ages — and to actors with disabilities. Even though it increased the volume of audition candidates, I was very glad to see that. I knew the piece well, and saw in it, not only an insane challenge for any actor, but an opportunity, as an LGBT artist, to give voice to the messages and stories the piece relates. I felt it needed to be heard right now. As events unfolded in America while I was learning the piece, it seemed it needed to be heard even more.
APG: I would have welcomed working with a trans actor on this piece. We did have a trans production advisor [Audrey Schwartz]. No nonbinary actors auditioned. I don't remember the exact wording of the announcement, but [former WTT artistic associate] Kelsey Ervi and I specifically discussed being open to all identities and that being included. We're so fortunate to have Bob who can meet the challenges of this piece. Not many people could.
All I can say to the rest is what Doug has said: "… 37 characters in the play. Three major stories are told, two of those are the stories of gay white men. Of the peripheral supporting players, one is a lesbian and two are straight white men. First and foremost, you look for the actor that can handle that — of any ethnicity, gender identity, age, or sexual identity."
Anything else to add?
BH: Not really, except for the fact that I totally see why this play garnered a Pulitzer Prize. One of the finest pieces of writing I have ever undertaken. And the single most difficult acting challenge of my career (a distinction formerly held by Noises Off!).
APG: Working with Bob, Shane, [managing director] Elizabeth Kensek, [production advisor] Audrey Schwartz and the whole team was soul soothing in such a time as this. The piece is truly one of the most remarkable works of our lifetime and I know it will touch the heart of anyone who sees it. As part of gay and trans culture, it's such an important story to tell. I truly hope people on all sides of issues of identity and sexuality will see it before they decide its validity and that it sparks greater love and understanding of our fellow travelers on this earth.