The search for queer heritage can be daunting. The combination of forced secrecy to ensure safety and the lack of heirs to pass on experiences has meant many of our histories are either casually forgotten or forcibly erased.
And then there’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. Often dubbed the original lesbian power couple, they were together from the day the met in 1907 until Stein’s death in 1946. Fixtures of the Paris avant-garde, the out and proud dyke duo’s relationship was not only well known — it left a sizable paper trail.
Along with her novels, poems and plays, Stein’s 1933 book The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas documented their relationship through her lover’s voice. Long-time friend WG Rogers detailed their story in When This You See Remember Me, published the same year Stein died. Toklas covered the subject twice: in 1954’s The Alice B Toklas Cookbook (a mix of memories with recipes, including directions for her famous hash brownies) and her 1963 memoir What is Remembered. And that’s just the beginning.
(Evalyn Parry and Anna Chatterton by Tanja-Tiziana)
Faced with this volume of information, the Independent Aunties (Evalyn Parry, Anna Chatterton and Karin Randoja) had a different kind of challenge; wading through the deluge of material and making tough decisions about what to leave out.
“Many academics have studied Stein, so there’s a lot of conjecture about her in addition to her works,” says Chatterton, who plays Toklas. “Her writing says so much about their relationship. But sometimes you feel you’re not getting the whole story so that’s when the process has to become an imaginative one.”
Gertrude and Alice is part of a recent Toronto explosion of works about queer history. In the last five years, we’ve seen new productions of Angels in America, The Normal Heart and The Boys in The Band. Buddies’ current season (planned by outgoing artistic director Brendan Healy who passed the reins to Parry in September) includes a remount of The Gay Heritage Project and the long-awaited premiere of The Body Politic, which examines the founding of Daily Xtra’s parent company Pink Triangle Press.
“It makes a lot of sense to me that in this moment in our country where the struggles are relatively less than they were a generation ago, that we’re looking for meaning and stories to give us more context about who we are,” says Parry who plays Stein. “When you’re not spending all your time fighting and surviving, you have more of a chance to reflect.”
Known for hit plays Clean Irene and Dirty Maxine, and Breakfast, the trio has dedicated nearly five years to its subject. An early idea to make a straight up bio play was trashed. So was the concept of a séance inviting their ghosts to visit. Eventually they landed on the current format, which transports the characters to the present and asks them to speak directly to the audience.
“We’re allowing Stein’s literary project to inform our work,” says Parry. “Being faithful to her meant it couldn’t be a linear story. We realized it was incumbent on our script to explore the same things she was exploring, trying to break with narrative form and reveal reality in a new way.
“The overwhelming amount of material meant we needed to separate out what was personally interesting to us and why we wanted to tell this story,” adds Randoja, who serves as director and dramaturge. “At the same time, you’re constantly uncovering new stuff and you realize there’s still so much we don’t know.”
(Gertrude and Alice
Thursday, March 10–Sunday, March 27, 2016
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St, Toronto