Multitudes live within us | Alan Paris and Nanette Brimmer

She was a transvestite who miraculously survived both the Nazi and the Stasi regimes. Now, local actor Alan Paris, under the direction of Nanette Brimmer, will bring to life the extraordinary true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf… and 36 other characters, in a one-man show.

Alan Paris: “When I read this I was incredibly excited and I thought: ‘I definitely have to do this’. Now that I’m actually doing it, it’s more of a matter of, ‘what the hell have I done!?”
Alan Paris: “When I read this I was incredibly excited and I thought: ‘I definitely have to do this’. Now that I’m actually doing it, it’s more of a matter of, ‘what the hell have I done!?”

It sure sounds like a challenge. That's the one thing that comes to mind at the mere mention of I Am My Own Wife, a one-man play by Doug Wright to be staged by Exit Stage Right over two weekends ­- starting with the next one.

Encompassing the extraordinary life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde; 1928-2002), the play requires a single actor to take on 37 different characters, acting out a kind of schizophrenic monologue for an hour and a half. Veteran local actor Alan Paris, working under the direction of Nanette Brimmer, has stepped up to the plate of this particular challenge.

But as both Paris and Brimmer explain, the project has so far proven to be less of a laborious slog... and more of a labour of love.

Brimmer was attracted to the play ever since she watched it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival some years ago, and had pitched it to Paris soon after.

Nanette Brimmer

Nanette Brimmer.

"At the very moment I got it into my head to stage this play, the thought furthest from my mind was that it was one actor performing 37 characters," she says. "Alan and I have had the script for five years. Occasionally, over this period of time, we each picked it up and glanced through it as we did with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's autobiography.

"By the time we eventually found the time to produce it, we were fairly familiar with the characters and the flow of the script. From the word go, each of us could have reversed roles because the two parallel lines merged with such ease that we were coming up with the same ideas simultaneously. Alan fulfilled every image I had of Charlotte and the people entwined in her stories, so rehearsals progressed easily and as each character developed, so did the excitement."

But who was Charlotte von Mahlsdorf?

Born to Max, a member of the Nazi party in 20s Germany and Gretchen Gaupp, Charlotte ­- or rather, Lothar ­- betrayed a predilection towards 'girlish' things since a very young age, collecting female clothing and even helping a second-hand clothes owner. Never getting along with her father ­- who pushed her to join the Hitler Youth against her will - Lothar ended up killing him in self-defence during an argument.

Spending some time in a psychiatric institution before being finally incarcerated as an anti-social delinquent, Lothar would reinvent himself as 'Charlotte' after the fall of the Third Reich ­- becoming a famous cult figure in Germany chiefly for her efforts in antiquarianism, as she opened a museum of curios and artefacts from German history, which would go on to become the legendary Grunderzheit.

"What I like about her is that she's not your cliché, flamboyant, camp transvestite. She was literally a man who lived as a woman, very humbly, and that is what is so endearing about her. People respected her for it."

If she was humble, she must also have been resilient, because her lifestyle made her a walking target under both the Nazi and Stasi regimes. Paris is hesitant to betray too much about how Charlotte went about manoeuvring through these particularly dangerous obstacles.

"During the times of the Stasi, gay life was banned in Berlin, and she rescued the full contents of a gay bar, moved them into her basement, and ran a secret gay bar from there, 'under the watchful eye of the Stasi'. How exactly she managed this remains something of a mystery..."

All in all, she sounds like an irresistible character to play, for any actor. But embodying 37 different roles in one play - among them Charlotte's repugnant father - brings with it a whole new set of challenges.

"When I read this I was incredibly excited and I thought: 'I definitely have to do this'. Now that I'm actually doing it, it's more of a matter of, 'what the hell have I done!?," Paris confesses.

"You don't realise how huge something like this is until you get into it... and under it. It's a real 'actor's piece' - it's more like choreography really, rather than just standard theatre blocking. Don't get me wrong, I'm loving it. This is the first time I'm doing a one-man show and I really look forward to seeing what it's like."

The gender-ambiguity of the play begs the question: what mind-frame did Paris get into while embodying the character of Charlotte in particular?

"In my head, I'm playing a woman. That's how she lived. She never made an effort to live like a woman, she just did. She couldn't have felt any other way."

Joking that the biggest advantage of directing a one-man show was that she didn't have the headache of negotiating separate schedules for actors, Brimmer affirms that, in the end, the most resonant element of the play is Charlotte's resilience to just be herself, even when under extreme duress.

"The message Charlotte delivers is that everyone ought to be able to live their lives according to their choice, and that people who are regarded as being different from the rest of society, or shunned by it, can also be valuable members and contributors to that same society."

I Am My Own Wife will be playing at Vault No. 2, Valletta Waterfront over 3-5 and 10-12 May. Tickets at €15 can be purchased from St James Cavalier.

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