Meet the German trans woman who defied the Stasi

The play I Am My Own Wife celebrates the importance of being true to one’s self.
Alan Paris in the previous run of I Am My Own Wife.

I remember watching I Am My Own Wife at a venue at the Valletta Waterfront, some 10 years ago, when transgender experiences were not as visible as they may be today. The production was tackled sensitively, narrating the story of Charlotte von Mahsldorf with accurate poignancy. Now, director Nanette Brimmer has decided to stage it once again. She shares some behind-the-scenes thoughts here.

How come you decided to stage this production a decade later?

Nanette: Earlier this year, Facebook kept reminding me that it’s been 10 years since Alan Paris and I staged I Am My Own Wife. Photos with several comments of high praise for the show popped up on my Facebook Memories every day for about two weeks. They brought back such great memories, such nostalgia. I also recalled how often over the years, both Alan and I were asked to stage the play again, so we decided to do a tenth anniversary production. Also, the LGBTQIA+ scene has evolved so much in these past 10 years that the play will be so much more pertinent now than it was then. It is an essentially universal message about freedom, and the importance of being true to one’s authentic self. 

For those who didn’t watch it 10 years ago, or just as a refresher for those who did, could you give a brief indication as to what lies behind such an enigmatic title?

Nanette: The play is a narrative of the life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (1928 – 2002), born Lothar Berfelde. Although born male, from an early age Charlotte identified as a woman. She preferred demure black dresses, wore heavy orthopedic shoes, and added no enhancements to her physique – no wigs, body modifications or make up – just a string of pearls. She had a passion for furniture of a certain period so she salvaged pieces from bombed out houses in Berlin during WWII and eventually opened a museum. She became the most celebrated transgender woman in the annals of German history and a decorated national hero. However, the question then arose as to how Charlotte not only evaded both the oppressive Nazi and Communist regimes of East Germany, but she did so being openly trans, in female attire, while also running a gay and lesbian nightclub in her cellar under the noses of the Stasi – the GDR’s notorious secret police. It eventually appears that, making her way through that climate unscathed may have required making some morally dubious choices.

The gay American playwright, Doug Wright, was so fascinated by her history of survival that he asked Charlotte if he could write a play about her. He based it on several interviews he held with her in Berlin. The title is from an anecdote Charlotte tells in her autobiography: when she was 40 her clueless mother asked “Don’t you think it’s time you settled down and found a wife?” to which Charlotte replied: “But, Mutti, don’t you know that I am my own wife?”

You also use a cryptic slogan: ‘A one-woman show, performed by a man’. Can you elaborate?

Nanette : That’s basically what it is. As mentioned, Charlotte was born male, but identified as a woman. As such she is played by a man, in female attire. But it doesn’t end there. The play requires its sole actor to morph in and out of some 35 different roles – male, female and even of different nationalities. These are the people who existed in Charlotte’s life at significant moments and are, therefore, entwined in her stories. However, since the play is written from Charlotte’s perspective, each of these roles is doubly acted – the protagonist plays Charlotte, and then Charlotte’s version of each of these other characters.

Obviously, this performance requires an actor of calibre and stamina, with great stage presence and years of experience. Alan Paris ticked all these boxes, and it was such a pleasure working with him 10 years ago, that I wanted to rekindle that camaraderie. The role also requires an aptitude for various accents, especially German since Charlotte herself and some other characters speak with a German accent. Alan has taken this very seriously and has enlisted help with ‘proper’ pronunciation, so he is always clearly understood. 

You mentioned that Alan plays several characters. How will the audience identify one character from another?

Nanette : Naturally, I’ve had to be very meticulous about this and Alan has had to be very patient with my obsession for detail. Firstly, bear in mind that there are no costume changes – Alan plays all these personages in a black dress, headscarf and pearls. Furthermore, most scenes are conversations between two, sometimes three people and the changes are fast. So it was imperative to give each persona a distinct voice and posture, and sometimes a small trait which belongs solely to that character so that they all become distinguishable from one another. When Alan quickly switches into a different role, everything about him needs to change. Each character must be recognisable so that the audience can remember whether they have met that character before.

Will this version be different from the original production of 10 years ago?

Nanette : Not quite. First of all, there is very little one can change, but mostly because both Alan and I chose to keep the same structure. There are some changes, but these are merely cosmetic. As Charlotte explains : the items in her museum must not be refurbished.  They must be shown “as is”.  Alan and I are so excited and enjoying rehearsals. We can’t wait to bring Charlotte back!

I Am My Own Wife  runs between November 17 and 19, and 24 and 26 at 8PM at Theatre Next Door, Maghtab. Booking is available online.

Related Posts