“Don’t worry about putting your feet up on the coffee table,” says award-winning writer, composer and musical director Dorothy Dittrich.
“It’s a sturdy piece. It used to be a desk but the previous owner sawed the legs half off and gave it to us as a coffee table.”
The time-tested coffee table in question has deep drawers and a gracefully worn finish revealing all sorts of nooks and dents from years of loving use. It’s just one of the many eclectic bits of furniture in Dittrich’s living room, all of which reveal pieces of the past.
There’s the whitewashed china cabinet which contains her great-grandmother’s china, a bookshelf lined with CDs and music books, and a glimmering piano, which sits proudly in the centre of the room. Clearly, the room’s inhabitants are musical creatures. Even her cat Ben has a penchant for good chords.
“There’s not any music he doesn’t like,” she says, “except maybe bass guitar. But even when it’s being played he’ll curl up in the case and take a nap.”
Dittrich has been working as a professional musician for the past 15 years. She has written musicals, plays and monologues that have appeared on stages all across Canada, including the award-winning musical When We Were Singing.
Her latest effort, The Dissociates, breaks from her previous plays as it’s the first one she has ever produced that does not use music. Instead, it delves into the rhythms, harmonies and chords of the mind.
It’s a dark comedy in which seven actors simultaneously play one 50-something lesbian named Alex. Or rather, they play seven aspects of Alex’s personality from which she has dissociated over time.
“It’s about her connecting with parts of herself,” explains Dittrich. “It’s really about a moment, a decision that Alex has to make about how her life is going to go. She has to decide how she’s going to face the future.”
Alex’s fragments–all of which have unique names, personalities and opinions that often conflict with each other–are personified by five women (including an intellectual, a baby dyke and a nun) and one man.
“It’s a story about what happens when we stop listening to ourselves and start pushing away thoughts and feelings because we don’t want to deal with them because they might be difficult or painful,” says Dittrich. “It’s the story of that woman making a decision to let herself feel and live her life fully. That being said, it’s a story about courage.”
The challenge for Dittrich was figuring out how to tell it.
“I began to think about how to tell that story in a different way. A way that would allow me to talk about her history and philosophy and her culture, and the idea of the personification of thought, the many voices we all have. The parts of ourselves that speak to us and act for us, and take over or recede, became the avenue I landed on to tell the story.”
Despite her parts’ animated, thought-provoking, and at times rancorous debates, Alex seems oblivious to their presence.
In fact, on the surface, Alex seems dull, focusing on the minutia of her garden or some trivial memory of why she hates Christmas carols. She leads a secure but rather boring existence devoid of depth and meaning.
But her plethora of personas paint a rich tapestry of a life that has been fragmented and compartmentalised over time–a life they are now desperate to share with her.
“Alex is less interesting because she’s cut off from all these other parts of herself,” says Dittrich. “I think it’s a common thing that people do to a greater or lesser degree. She has made a decision about what she will and won’t look at, and she cuts off very vibrant and interesting thoughts, feelings and memories.
“I am quite different from Alex,” Dittrich continues. “This is not my story but I can certainly say I relate to the emotions expressed. We’ve all experienced loneliness, fear, isolation and confusion.”
Dittrich points in particular to the struggles she experienced when she first came out. “I think, as part of the gay community, I had to ask myself where and how I fit in. Who do I tell? Where’s my group? Who are my friends?”
As Alex’s parts share their stories, snapshots of queer history begin to take shape, and the play explores the ever-morphing ideas of what it means to be queer throughout the decades.
Alex’s memories span from a time when gays and lesbians had little choice but to go to bars described as “doors with a number above it on an empty street,” to the present reality of same-sex marriage and openly gay sidewalk cafés.
Dittrich was partly inspired by her experiences managing a lesbian bar in New York and the many different women of all ages and types she met there. “How different yet connected we all are,” she reflects. “What we share, where we meet as people and where we differ.”
Dittrich seamlessly manages the connections between her characters on stage. Seven characters chattering and sometimes fighting with each other could easily have become a ghastly cacophony. But her musical abilities come into play here as each character’s monologue fades in and out at appropriate moments and occasionally overlaps to produce a glorious harmony.
“I think our friends and families often exhibit and reflect our inner thoughts and feelings,” notes Dittrich. “I think we attract people who will do that for us, for better or for worse, to help us know ourselves, help us heal, help us along our spiritual path. We’re constantly reflecting and showing each other all manner of things both wonderful and appalling.”