08 March 2017
Anna Chatterton is a different kind of triple threat: as a librettist, playwright, and actor, she is a force to be reckoned with. She brought much of that talent to her portrayal of another force- the quiet but witty Alice B. Toklas in the hilarious and heartbreaking play Gertrude and Alice (created by The Independent Aunties), snagging herself a nomination for Outstanding Actress in the process.
What was your first experience with theatre that you can remember?
I think about this moment a lot, actually. I was eleven, and I was going to Leah Posluns, which is a drama school at the Jewish Community Centre up north in the city. My family had just moved here and my mother enrolled me in these classes. They have quite a big theatre there, it’s a really nice theatre, and I was able to sneak in there and watch the rehearsals of a play that they were doing. No idea what play it was, but I just sat there. My mother is the type who would have allowed me to do this, but I probably was like, ‘can I just stay all day?’; I just sat there for five hours and watched them rehearse. They might have just been rehearsing the same scene over and over; like, it wasn’t a particularly ‘interesting day’, but I was just so engrossed. I was completely captured into the magic of theatre. I wish I knew what the play was, I wish I know who the people were, but I just was like: this is what I want to do.
Did you try to initiate theatre stuff for yourself after that?
I just kept doing drama classes. Then, when I was in grade eight, I auditioned for the Claude Watson program, so I went there and then continued on in the Claude Watson program through high school. So, within that school I was able to- we had drama every single day, and so I was able to do playwriting, and actually learn about a lot of different types of theatre, which I think really inspired me.
You’re a playwright and an actor and a librettist. Were those three things always there, or did you come to one or two later?
I think they were always there. I always wrote, even just as a kid with her journal or whatever. Then in high school we had a playwriting class and a creative writing class, so I got to take that, but the opera came later. I listened to opera as a kid, my mother listened to opera- not studiously or anything like that, but it was in my world; classical music and opera were in my world. But that came way later. If you had told me when I was twenty- or any age, really- that I was going to end up writing for opera, I would have been very confused, and I’d have said ‘I think you have that wrong.’
What makes you say that?
I guess I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a librettist. I didn’t realize that there were plays that were written that were then set to music and then sung, I just didn’t even know that was a thing and I didn’t know that there was contemporary opera. I just knew the classics. People always ask me, the first question will be: ‘do you write in English?’ (which I do) and the second question is: ‘which comes first, the music or the writing?’ and the writing comes first.
When you started writing plays, did you also act in them, or were you writing for other people?
Once I started professionally out of theatre school, I did start acting in them. Evalyn [Parry] and I started right out of theatre school.
That was Concordia?
We went to Concordia, yeah. I was in theatre and performance. I think she was originally in that but then went into drama and education, I can’t recall. But we met through that and we were in a theatre company together there, which we were just acting in, someone else wrote the plays. And then when we got out of theatre school we both came back to Toronto, and we started creating devised theatre, physical theatre. And so we started with other texts. We would use Margaret Atwood poetry, Monique Proulx short stories. And then I went to One Yellow Rabbit. They have that laboratory, a workshop that you take for three weeks, where the idea is that they train you the way that they work themselves and teach you what they do, the skills that they have and then you have to come up with your own ten-minute solo piece.
Can you say more about what their approach is?
They are very physical, which was really an interest of mine when I was younger. One of the founding members, Denise Clarke, she’s a dancer and a choreographer. I think the other three (there are two now but at the time there were three) are all actors, but also very physical. I don’t know if they had taken dance when they were younger, but I feel like Denise Clarke really galvanized them to become a very physical company. They often use poetic text. So they teach you the basis of that. Also, this was a long time ago, yoga was part of the practice; at that time, yoga wasn’t as widespread as it is now. So I learned that practice and I took that with me. They basically taught you a discipline and a rigour.
Is that something that you still use today?
Probably here and there. I really did for like a decade. But I’ve learned so many things along the way, and also I shortcut to things now. But I do always think about it. It really was the first time – other than a performance art class that I took in theatre school – that I had ever created something for myself to perform in. And then, through that, I wrote this ten-minute piece that I called Clean Irene. Then I came back to Toronto; the Rhubarb Festival was coming up and I said to Evalyn Parry- who’s my co-writer and collaborator and part of the theatre company that we’re in – she had seen the piece and I said ‘I’m thinking of making it into a full length piece, do you want to write it with me?’ and she was like, ‘yeah!’ So that was our first piece, it ended up being called Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine.
Is that how you started working together as a theatre company?
Yeah! It became the Independent Aunties. Karin Randoja came on board as the director, and then she said she would like to be part of our company, so it was the three of us, and it’s now been something like fourteen years.
What’s the mandate of your company- to write about women and their stories?
Yeah – women’s obsessions, historically and contemporarily.
Obsessions in what sense?
We’re interested in what women are obsessed with, but that was particularly what Clean Irene was about, women’s obsessions.
Moving onto Gertrude and Alice, do you want to talk about how that project got started?
Our third play that we wrote was called The Mysterious Shorts. Passe-Muraille produced it, we did it as part of a double bill with our second play, Frances, Mathilda and Tea. In The Mysterious Shorts we had four ten-minute plays, as one night. It was women through the ages and we started with Gertrude and Alice. It was actually Karin Randoja- she creates the plays with us and then Evalyn and I write the text- who brought it in as a suggestion. She looked at one of Gertrude Stein’s texts, The World Is Round, and grabbed sentences from it, because that’s how Karin can work on her own- she’ll use found text and play with already written text. So that was the first one of the evening [in Mysterious Shorts]; we played Gertrude and Alice, and Karin was always like ‘Evalyn is definitely Gertrude and Anna is definitely Alice B. Toklas’. She just felt like we kind of looked like them. People commented a lot on that little short first [play] in particular, and we realized there was so much more to dig into. In a way, Evalyn and I have a similar aesthetic in how we write to how Gertrude Stein writes. We do a lot of word play, rhythmic text, repetition, poetic- that’s the way we like to write, particularly together.
We did another play called Breakfast and, after that, we were like, ‘what are we going to do next?’. I was like, ‘Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’ and for some reason I really had to convince them to do it. I really liked the idea of investigating those two more. It’s not like they were horribly opposed to it, I just remember I really had to convince them, or I was just more on that tirade, I guess you could say. But then they came on board and it was just amazing. There was so much research to do because there’s so much material. Not only is [Stein] such a prolific writer but there’s so many books written about her and about her and Alice B. Toklas and their relationship. So we spent about five years working on it. We took a year off for maternity leave, a company maternity leave, because I had a baby; that’s why it stretched that long. But our research deepened and our understanding of them deepened further and further. And the more that we read about them, the more in love we fell with them, even though we recognized that, particularly Gertrude Stein is a very flawed character but fascinating. I feel like our entire process was like ‘oh my god I just read about this!’ and telling anecdotes of what we’d read, just kind of amazed.
Is there a lot written about their relationship specifically?
There is, actually. There’s a really great book called Gertrude and Alice, I think, but we referred to it as ‘the Blue Book’ because it had a blue cover, the original one that we found. That was the book that I loved so much. It had so many stories about the two of them. You know, some other books would gloss past their relationship, or not acknowledge that they were in a love relationship. But [this book] really focused on their love story, but also the darkness between them, so there was just so much to learn from that. But, yeah, there really is a lot written about the two of them. They were such a dynamic force, and you know, there would be no Gertrude Stein without Alice.
You included quite a detailed timeline in the programme for the audience. What was the motivation behind that?
There was so much interesting stuff that we wanted to put it all in the play. Evalyn one day was like, ‘well, wait a minute, why don’t we make a big programme, with all of the things that we’re not putting in the play, and all of these things that we find fascinating’ – basically a timeline, because we realized over the course of the five years that we were making this play that a lot of people didn’t know very much about Gertrude and Alice- well, maybe didn’t know anything about Alice; they knew some things about Gertrude, but not very much. Had they read any of her text, it would be little examples here and there like ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’, that kind of thing. It was also this realization that the audience would be coming because they have a curiosity about Gertrude, and it did turn out that some scholars came and things like that, people who study her. But we knew that the general public may never have heard of her or had a fragmentary idea of her, same as we did when we started. So we had great fun making that programme.
Throughout the development of the play, what do you think came out of your character of Alice that might not have just been obvious from the research you did?
I think really seeing their dynamic onstage. As a company, because we’ve written these plays, and a bunch of them are duo plays- just me and Evalyn performing them – people would talk a lot about Evalyn and my dynamic onstage. I guess because we’ve worked together so long and collaborate so closely, the fact that we’re friends and our personalities together- Karin kept saying how the chemistry really comes out on stage and we can use that and twist it because of what we’d learned about the relationship between Gertrude and Alice, so it felt like it was really actualizing that for people.
Also, because it became clear to us that a lot of people didn’t know who she was, this idea that Gertrude Stein would come back to the present day because she wanted to know what her legacy was. She was so huge in her time, they were kind of like rock stars. She’s not forgotten, but she’s studied in very particular circles: academia, lesbian culture, queer culture – it’s within these microcosms. And, of course, she’s all over the internet, but the general public doesn’t know who she is.
I remember that scene where she stands and looks at the audience and says ‘well you must all know about me!’ The same thing happens in academia – women scholars get forgotten about left, right, and centre. And you know, fuck Hemingway. Why don’t we know more about Gertrude Stein?
Exactly! Why did I read Hemingway in high school? Why didn’t I read Gertrude Stein? She’s brilliant, and so many people stole from her and she was revolutionary with language. So the show was really putting that in front of people, our forgotten hero, heroine.
And the juxtaposition of her arrogance, sure, but also, she shouldn’t be forgotten!
Yeah the arrogance, making that really real for people. Because that was a thing for her. She had huge ambition and she took up a lot of space. We talked about that a lot; that’s quite a thing to do as a woman – to take up space with such assurity and to have such ambition. We talked about that a lot, about not hiding her ambition as a woman.
Which is truthful to her character, but also funny. It was just so beautiful to watch that, it gave me so much joy.
YES. Yeah! And also to show Alice because people didn’t know a lot about her, and the people who do know about her made assumptions about her that she was very retiring. There’s a saying, and she upheld this saying, that she was nothing but a shadow of Gertrude. But actually, behind every great man is a woman, and behind every Gertrude Stein is a woman, and that was true. She absolutely had control over Gertrude and she was vicious and opinionated and really wore the pants in the house, so to speak, even though she was very feminine. She was a very fascinating character, so [we wanted] to put her in front, so that people knew about her.
Was there something that came out of the production as it evolved that surprised you about Alice?
This is just a technical acting thing. But we did, I think, three workshop productions in front of an audience and then we did our premier production at Buddies last year. I had explored Alice a lot but, when we began rehearsal, Evalyn had always played Gertrude with her American accent. But because it’s easy to find Gertrude everywhere, and easy to hear her, we hadn’t heard Alice. And then it just came to Karin as we began rehearsing the play, three weeks away from production, that Alice needed to have an accent too. Why would Alice sound kind of like Anna? And I freaked out because I’m a perfectionist so I was like, ‘what do you mean, we’re starting in three weeks, ahhh!’ So I dug in and I found this amazing recording of Alice B. Toklas being interviewed which was a five-hour interview that I couldn’t get a hold of but there was a 45-minute interview that I listened to obsessively. And she has this very bizarre accent, or it felt bizarre… it was kind of grand Hollywood. It was wild, and a bit put on, but also natural. I don’t think she was putting it on all the time, I think it began at one point and then continued. So I would say that was my revelation of Alice, by finally hearing her voice, even though I had observed her physicality so much- how she stood [with] a little bit of a hunch and a little bit of jutting her head forward, and quite contained. She was really reserved, which is quite different than me- but to hear her voice really transformed Alice for me and really gave me a picture of who she was. So that was my revelation about Alice, was to hear how she spoke.
Do you have any favourite moments in the production?
Alice has a lot of jokes, some swift, sarcastic zingers, so there were a bunch of those that I really liked. And I really liked looking at Gertrude Stein with love. There’s a part towards the end where I come up to her and whisper ‘I love you’ and I just really liked that moment because I really understood the depth of their love. They were together for forty years and were literally not apart for more than a few hours in that forty years, so it was wonderful to display that. We had a lot of women, lesbians, thank us, for putting this love story on stage, older women, and I realized it’s unique for people to see an enduring love story between two women onstage. So I liked really being true with that.
Shortly before the production, my mother lost her partner – my father – and that kind of loss was very real for me. To watch it on stage was intense because yes, that’s what happens when your partner of forty years dies, you don’t know what to do with yourself.
Yeah, we kept talking about that, about how Alice was alone, suddenly, for twenty years after Gertrude died. And she was so dedicated to Gertrude in those twenty years. It was her mission to get everything of hers typed, everything she’d ever written-and she was a very prolific writer! And yeah, it was heartbreaking.
Is there anything else you want to add about your experience on the production?
We did create this piece, the three of us – Karin, Evalyn, and myself. The way that we work is that Karin Randoja will give us tasks- physical then, as we get further and further into the piece, writing. We will discuss for hours (days! weeks!) and then be given these tasks – Evalyn and I will go away and write and then come to the studio, put them up on our feet, discuss it, and then Evalyn and I used a mixture of Gertrude Stein text, Alice B. Toklas text and our own writing – so the whole thing was our own writing but it was very much a collaborative effort.
So you are currently a playwright in residence?
Yes, I’m a playwright in residence at Tarragon – with Tarragon it seems like once you are, you are for life. I’ve been there since 2010. And I am at Nightwood Theatre as well.
Are you working on anything now?
I’ve got a few plays that I’m just at the very beginning of. For Nightwood Theatre, I’m still in the research phase because there is so much research required for Kurdish female fighters who are fighting ISIS, so I’m doing a lot of research about that, and then I’m going to have a Canadian soldier as well, who goes and volunteers to fight with the YBJ, this Kurdish female voluntary army.
Then I’m working with the Alberta Theatre Projects in Calgary. I’m writing a play about contemporary cowgirls. So that’s pretty fun. I’m collaborating with director Eda Holmes, so we’re coming up with a storyline together and then I’m writing it.
And Andrea Donaldson and I are working on a new piece as well. I had so many productions last year and now I feel like I’m right back at point zero again.
How long does it take you to develop a play?
It varies, but definitely I’m a believer in a long process. So four years, three years, something like that? I’d be surprised if I did something within two years. I just feels like, as the years go by, you get more and more perspective on your piece so that your work becomes deeper.
Do you think you would ever do a remount of Gertrude and Alice?
Yeah, we’re definitely talking about that, we’re talking about potentially bringing it back in 2018, 2019, do a run as part of a little tour maybe? We’ve had interest from various places in the country, so it might be a little tour, bring those gals back, bring those DAMES back.