Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf had quite a life. The truly remarkable woman started out life as a boy whose father forced him to join the Hitler Youth in 1942. Things got ugly. There was a gun, a rolling pin and a patricide. Things got more than a little complicated from there. In 1960, she opened a museum in Germany. By 1970 the museum had become a social hub for the gay community in East Berlin. She has since become the topic for a very interesting one-person drama called I AM MY OWN WIFE. This month actor Michael Stebbins has the opportunity to play Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf again. Having played her in an intimate studio theatre environment in Maryland not too long ago, he returns to her once more in a production that opens this week. Stebbins answered a few questions about his experience with the show for The Small Stage.
This is not the first time you’ve played Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in I AM MY OWN WIFE. What’s the appeal in returning to the role for Theatre Gigante this year?
I think the appeal is two-fold. One is the opportunity to be working with Theatre Gigante again [I first acted Theatre Gigante is 2014’s MY DEAR OTHELLO, followed by WOYZEK, BEAUTIFUL AND POINTLESS – works by Frank O’Hara, QUORUM – a premiere by Gigante’s Mark Anderson, and HOLIDAYS ON ICE – by David Sedaris]. Two is the opportunity to be directed by Isabelle Kralj. AND, also, having the opportunity to share this beautifully written play with Theatre Gigante audiences. Okay, I guess that was three-fold.
What has your experience been like working on the show for Gigante? What input has director Isabelle Kralj had on a show that you’ve already performed elsewhere? Might it not be easy to fall into a posture where you’re more familiar with the character than you are the director and therefore less motivated to listen?
When a production finishes its run, the lines go completely out of my head [as well as staging]. You know those people who can recite lines from past productions or friends who can spout full scenes from movies? I am not one of those people. When it’s over, it’s over, and most everything goes out of my head, and I move forward. So, in terms of coming back to I AM MY OWN WIFE, I feel like we have a pretty clean slate from which to start .
Isabelle and Mark [Theatre Gigante] suggested having I AM MY OWN WIFE as part of their 30th anniversary season and asked me if I would like to revisit the role[s].
Working with Theatre Gigante, and their form of “hybrid theatre” – as they call it – has been very interesting. Theatre Gigante very seldom does a “straight play.” I believe Isabelle said that over the course of Gigante’s history, they have not produced more than five plays – already published and being performed in the theatre world. Theatre Gigante felt that, as a “straight play,” I AM MY OWN WIFE fell very much into their world – a non-linear and unique way to tell a story. And, because there is no rulebook as how to have one person morph into so many characters, this opens up a world of possibilities. And, as a director, Isabelle Kralj thrives on working in a “world of possibilities” way. Isabelle’s approach to a script – and how to bring those words from the page to the stage – is very unique. With her upbringing and with many of her professional years having been devoted to dance, she is pretty amazing with approaching a moment or a gesture. And, by the time the show is over, you may have forgotten the name of a character that appears and disappears – because there are quite a number - but you will most likely recall a gesture that you identify with that character. And, in some key moments, when it might seem logical to play out a scene to its fullest physical potential, Isabelle will take a very different approach – so that the most physical of scenes is staged in [almost] stillness. Isabelle is also a wonderful sculptor and molder of movement, so she is very particular when it comes to how the audience sees – say – three characters having a conversation. And, in the end, I am hoping that this will appear seamless.
This time you get to hang out onstage with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in the era of Trump. Do you find yourself relating to the character any differently with the current political climate? If so, how are actor and character adjusting to current events?
When I acted in I AM MY OWN WIFE in late 2013, the world was much brighter - in my estimation. Sharing the play then certainly had a power, and I think it always will, because it is a very good play. It was and remains a very informative play, and we learn a lot about living under the rule of the Nazis and the Communists. But, in 2013, it felt a bit removed – like we were looking at a time in history. Spending time with the characters in the play in 2017? I feel like many communities today are experiencing what a number communities and select individuals in I AM MY OWN experienced. Our world – certainly this country – should be taking notice of those in leadership positions. I am sure everyone takes notice at the Twitter garbage [how can we avoid it?] and the late-night talk show host rants. But, I do hope that we are also taking notice of the potential for grave dangers that we face. We are already experiencing them – Charlotte experienced them and more. So, I – the actor – and Charlotte – the character – have much more in common with each other than we did four years ago. And, though it is very nice to see her again, I think that what we have in common is more frightening than anything else. We met in Obama times and we are being reunited in Trump times. That is blessing and the curse of it.
Theatre Gigante’s production of I Am My Own Wife runs Sep. 28 - Oct. 7 at 508 Kenilworth 508 Theatre on 1925 E. Kenilworth Place. For ticket reservations and more, visit Theatre Gigante online.