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SPOTLIGHT: GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION Q&A with Shirley Johnston & Lynita Crofford

Barbara Loots


GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION is onstage at Theatre on the Bay from 2 to 5 February 2022. It explores the extraordinary relationship between American modernist author and poet, Gertrude Stein, and lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, who rejected the conservative values of middleclass America in the early nineteen hundreds and found refuge in the bohemian decadence of Paris… and in each other.

We caught up with Shirley Johnston (SJ) and Lynita Crofford (LC) as they step into the shoes of these historic figures to ask them some questions about their journey with the characters and the play.

1. The play is billed as an evocative and witty exploration of the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. What evocative aspect of the play do you find most appealing? SJ: Aside from being a poignant love story, the play captures perfectly the turmoil in France during the first half of the twentieth century. Despite the two world wars which ravaged Europe during this time, Gertrude and Alice ploughed on boldly. During the second world war they drove around the French countryside in their Ford truck with their faithful poodle, Basket, delivering hospital supplies for the French Wounded. The music and the visuals in this production perfectly evoke the mood of the period and the slides also bring to light the astounding artwork which Stein uncovered: paintings by Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, Gris and others. It is largely thanks to Stein that these modern artists became internationally known.

LC: For me their relationship is particularly evocative. Soon after arriving in Paris 1907, Alice met Gertrude and instantly fell in love with her. They lived together as a couple until Gertrude died in 1946. Alice ran their household, took care of Gertrude typed her manuscripts (apparently a made a few changes when she thought it was necessary) and made sure her works were published. Alice said a bell rang whenever she met a genius and a bell definitely rang when she met Gertrude! I also love the humour in the play.

2. You’ve been on quite a journey with this play over the last few years. When you first started preparations for your roles, what aspects of your characters most appealed to you in committing to this theatrical experience? SJ: The more I read about Gertrude Stein, the more fascinating she appears. She was by no means an angel. There is still some suspicion that she may have collaborated with the Vichy government which might explain why two Jewish women were allowed to stay in occupied France for the duration of the WWII. However, what is unquestionable is that she was a dedicated and energetic promoter of the arts and literature. Ernest Hemingway was a devoted fan and there were rumours of Gertrude being besotted with him... until their friendship soured. LC: From the start I loved her eccentricity. Taking on the role of Alice was very exciting, but also quite a challenge, because I have never played a character quite as interesting before. I have also never really been a 'character actor ' so I loved the opportunity to explore a character so unlike myself. I really wanted to capture the essence of Alice without creating a caricature. The script also required me to play Alice at different stages in her life which meant I had to age from 30-90 without the use of make-up which was quite a challenge.

3. Since then, how has your understanding of your character developed? Have any insights changed? SJ: I think reading 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas' (written by Stein) gave me the greatest insights into her character: She was adventurous, intelligent, energetic, kind, generous, arrogant... and vain.

LC: I absolutely adore Alice and every time I step into her shoes I am in awe of this remarkable woman her incredible wit, intelligence, and absolute to devotion to Gertrude. I also find it fascinating that she played such an important part in Gertrude's success, but was quite happy to take a backseat out of the limelight .Someone recently mentioned to me that they had read a book which suggested that Alice was in an abusive relationship which is an interesting perspective that I hadn’t considered.

4. In researching the history of your characters, what most surprised you? SJ: She was a ball of fun, a great dancer, an ice skater and a terrible driver! What didn't surprise me was that she loved food. When she first met Toklas, Stein recalled: "We discovered in each other a mutual fondness for cakes, so we took in all the bakeries."

LC: That she was a concert pianist. That there is a recipe in Alice's cookbook for making Hash brownies. And that she had quite a prominent moustache that she was very proud of and refused to shave .

5. What aspect of the relationship between Stein and Toklas do you find resonates most with people? SJ: Their enduring love for each other.

LC: Their absolute devotion, love and companionship. 6. Apparently, shortly before her death, Stein said “I always wanted to be historical”. Do you think this play and the way people related to it, would carry her approval as a words spoken to power? SJ: She certainly longed for fame, 'la gloire', as she described it. I think she'd approve of this play enormously.

LC: I think she would definitely approve that audiences are still enjoying the play and are still fascinated by her and her work . Often after a performance audience members say that they never knew much about Gertrude Stein's writing, but are now inspired to read her work and find out more about her .

7. When asked about how she achieved fame, Stein commented that it was a process of cultivating a very small audience. With theatre taking cautionary steps to revive itself after the devastating impact of the pandemic, do you think there is current-day wisdom in those words still? SK: Indeed. I also feel that this play has an intimacy which suits a smaller theatre perfectly.

LC: Most definitely. Our production started out with an audience of 44 at the then Alexander Bar in Strand Street in 2018 and here we are in 2022, having won local and international awards, performing the show at the Theatre on the Bay. Unfortunately, due to Covid protocols audience numbers are still restricted so we are still playing to small audiences, but audiences who are hungry to experience live theatre again.

8. Do you see the play as an homage to Stein’s ‘Mecca for the modern-minded’, in the way it draws audiences to it? If so, what aspect of it best enforces that association? SJ: I think when the play was written in the seventies it would have been regarded as outrageously 'modern', with its fearless exploration of a homosexual relationship and, indeed, the embracing of a 'gay marriage'. Although audiences today are far more tolerant and sophisticated, the writing is so good, the characters so well conjured up by Win Wells, and the story so poignant, that I believe it is still a 'Mecca'... for theatre lovers.

LC: I think the audience is immersed in a world of creative abundance and are witness to the love and devotion of two remarkable women 9. How has it been working with Director, Chris Weare on this project? SJ: Chris has driven this project with enthusiasm, flair and finesse from the world go. He is a real 'performer's director'. Lynita approached Chris to direct in 2018 and I don't think any of us imagined we would still be performing this gem in 2022. We have had an amazing journey, from the tiny erstwhile Alexander Bar where we performed in 2018 and 2019, to the Hilton Festival, The Dublin Gay Theatre Festival and the Theatre on the Square in Johannesburg in 2020. And now, here we are, in one of the most beautiful theatres in the world: The Theatre On The Bay. Is there another theatre in the world, which has a more beautiful backdrop than spectacular Camps Bay? I think not. I am thrilled to be here.

LC: I love working with Chris, he directed me in my first solo show in 2013 "An Audience with Miss Hobhouse ". When I approached him about directing "Gertrude Stein and a Companion" he agreed even though there wasn’t a budget, we hadn’t cast the part of Gertrude and we had no rehearsal space. Chris allows you the creative freedom to explore and develop your performance but constantly guides and challenges you as an actor. He understands theatre, actors and the creative process. He has also been incredibly generous with his time and constant support with this project.

10. What would you like audiences to take away from your performance? SJ: I think perhaps admiration for two fearless women whose love surpassed all obstacles.

LC: I hope that in some way the audience will be moved by the amazing woman that was Alice B. Toklas

GERTRUDE STEIN AND A COMPANION runs from 2 to 5 February 2022 at Theatre on the Bay. Tickets for this Chris Weare directed productions is available online through Computicket. Covid protocols apply. The play is presented by arrangement with Concord Theatricals on behalf of Samuel French, Inc.


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