Doug Wright is excited to see WaterTower Theatre’s production of his 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, I Am My Own Wife. The Dallas native will sit in his New York City apartment and with a few clicks, he will watch the play in his living room. The Addison theater filmed the one-man show and it is now streaming through August 2.
WaterTower Theatre planned to produce the show in April. The theater company postponed the show because of the coronavirus pandemic. As the number of new cases of the virus increased steadily, filming became the only option for the theater to produce the show.
Wright approved of WaterTower Theatre’s plan, trusting the artistic team to bring his play to Dallas audiences under these unusual circumstances. “I feel like they were heroic to look for a new means to present the play. Obviously, because it is my hometown, I am extraordinarily invested in the production and deeply supportive of it. There’s nothing like parading your wares in front of the very people who nurtured you and watched you grow up so it’s anxiety-inducing,” Wright said.
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I Am My Own Wife is based on Wright’s interviews with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an eccentric transgender woman who survived the Nazi regime during World War II and the East German Communist rule following the war. The story still resonates.
“I think one of Charlotte’s great triumphs was living her own idiosyncratic life under two of the most repressive regimes that Western history has known, the Nazis and East German Stasi,” Wright said. “And I think we’re living at a point where we’re seeing autocracies around the world are on the rise. We’re seeing dictatorships flourish. In an unprecedented way, we’re seeing our own country make alliances with some of those questionable figures so I think any story in the current moment that speaks to the experience of marginalized people in an all-too hostile world has shocking relevance.”
One actor plays more than 30 characters, including von Mahlsdorf. Bob Hess takes on the technically challenging role in WaterTower Theatre’s production. While filming the show, Hess missed the live audience.
“I just missed the energy exchange with the audience hearing her story and their empathy for the story. The story moves me deeply, deeply and I’m sure that an audience that sees it is also affected and you can feel that if you’re an actor on stage. You can feel an audience change with the play as you do it and this is one where they would have been transformed by the story,” Hess said.
Producing theater during an economically devastating pandemic is about more than providing entertainment. “It’s an interesting time to be producing theater,” Shane Peterman, WaterTower Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director, said. “This was one show I was not willing to give up because it is such a smart, gorgeous piece. I am delighted to do this and to employ artists and designers. That’s a big part of it: trying to help people have work, especially artists.”
Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing professional actors in live theater, is currently not allowing its members to perform. Hess is a member of Equity as well as a broadcast actor working with an agency. His work in television and film clarified his availability to take on the role.
“There’s a lot of gray area about it in terms of what jurisdiction this work is under. The construct of what we’re doing is basically what I do when I film a movie or a television show, which is I’m given a script and cameras are turned on me doing that script and that’s not live theater. Equity is the union for live theater,” Hess said. “The construct seemed to be of that of a movie to me. I discussed it with the union that represents movie actors and I did find out that it would be under that jurisdiction.”
WaterTower Theatre worked with David Singer, the co-founder and CEO of Academy of Storytellers and Story & Heart in Oregon and local filmmakers and cinematographers Jeremy Bay and Brittany Bay of Bay Productions to film the show. Social distancing, temperature checks and masks were integral parts of rehearsals and filming.
Safety was Hess’s top concern. “I was also open to it because it was just me. If I had been a two-hander and there had been another actor on stage, I would have declined. The fact that people could stay so far apart and away from me made it acceptable to me,” Hess said.
Filming theater performances is going to become a part of WaterTower Theatre’s regular operations. In late August, the theater will present ONE Addison-Community that Builds, a filmed concert that will feature local favorites and a few celebrity surprises. Moving into the theater’s 25th season, the theater will film a one-woman show about Mary Shelley and a workshop series.
“Our intent is to produce our first live production with an audience in February, but I’m negotiating for the rights for streaming with every piece because I do feel this is a newer business model and I think even if there is a vaccine and things turn around, there will still be people uncomfortable coming to the theatre or people will get in the habit of watching Hamilton or other content like I Am My Own Wife at home,” Peterman said. “My intention is to offer this indefinitely, not as the sole way to watch live theater because you can’t replace it, but I think this is something to enhance it.”
Reaching a wider audience while theaters are closed is the major appeal of streaming productions. “I think a lot of people are seeing theater that never went to the theater before. There’s a lot of streaming archival shows where there are audiences present and they are getting a sense of what it is to watch a piece of theater and I hope that drives them to see more theater,” Hess said.
Wright hopes audiences who discovered theater through streaming productions will find a stronger theater community when theaters reopen. “All across the country, playwrights have had virtually nothing to do but write. When this pandemic ends, there will be an exciting explosion of new work because we’ve been isolated with our computer, living with the voices in our head,” Wright said. “In light of the recent social unrest and protests that we’ve been seen, it has given the theater community in New York and across the country a welcome moment to hit pause and ask ourselves some tough questions about who really has opportunity in our field and what stories are being told with the most support and the most regularity. So, it has given us a time to brainstorm toward a new, more equitable, more inclusive, richer American theater.”
Learn more: www.watertowertheatre.org