On November 7th, 2020, I was at a Starbucks in Long Beach, on my way to my mom’s house, when I scrolled through Facebook and saw that Kamala Harris would become the next Vice President of the United States.
The only way I can describe that moment was that it was similar to the first time I saw snow at 20-years-old: shocking, like my brain was taking its sweet time processing something I’ve never seen before.
It wasn’t until 3 hours later, when I watched on my mom’s television our incoming Vice President, that my shock turned into tears down my cheeks, joined with a choked sigh. Because despite my issues with her previous stances & policies, and despite enduring another presidential election in which I felt I was choosing “the lesser of two evils,” a woman, who looked just like me, was going to be the Vice President of the United States.
That day, I believed I was fortunate enough to be witnessing a steppingstone that would change the world for the better.
But how much has really changed?
Since President Biden & Vice President Harris have taken office, the Supreme Court has voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, countless laws have gone into effect throughout the nation that restrict women’s access to healthcare, birth control and abortions, and today, states like Florida are banning books in children’s libraries with subjects related to “wokeness” (whatever that means), including important historical figures throughout history who do not fit the white, male, cisgender narrative.
Being a woman, these days can often feel like one step forward, 50-years-worth-of-steps back; a losing chess game.
But those special moments—moments like seeing Kamala Harris, our first Black-Indian female Vice President, on screen right before our eyes—these are the moments that inspire us to dream of a bigger and better world, moments that are meant to propel us into action. We have a responsibility to keep that momentum going, even when it feels like we’ve fallen behind.
That’s what Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a nun in 10th century Germany, invites the audience to consider in Elizabeth Dement’s No Place like Gandersheim.
In the second interview I’ve had the pleasure of doing with Skylight Theatre’s 40th season theatre-makers, I got to sit down with playwright Elizabeth Dement and director Randee Trabitz, to talk time traveling, Catholicism & the film industry, 10th century Germany and women’s rights.
Carolina Pilar Xique: I would love to hear more about the inspiration from this play and who the real “Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim” was. What elements of her life are embedded in this piece?
Elizabeth Demet: The play came out of my experience as a writer, because the play is about a female writer—the first female playwright, who was Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim.
Oftentimes, writers—women writers in particular—get notes that seem to take them farther away from what they initially intended to write, especially in Hollywood. And I was wondering, “How far back does this go?” So I started to look and I landed in 10th century Germany in this abbey with Hrotsvitha. I discovered she was a nun who wrote a sex comedy and I thought, “This is a woman I have to write about.” That’s where I started—in the abbey.
I will say that the play is not historically accurate—it is a comedy, a reimagining of Hrotsvitha’s life, or a life she might have had in a parallel universe. There are certain elements that are accurate: she did live in the abbey, she was a canonist, and she did adapt a play by Terrence, a Roman playwright, and it was a sex comedy. She adapted it to be more of a religious piece, and she was very close friends with the Abbess. They had an intensely loving friendship, and so that character is also in the play. At the time, Otto was the Holy Roman Emperor, his niece was the Mother Superior at Gandersheim, and his wife was Theophanu, who is a wonderful character in the play. I think that’s all the parts that are historically accurate—with everything else, I took a lot of liberties. I had to sort of infer what people’s personalities might have been and what their desires were. And there’s a little time travel in the play, so I don’t think that happened in the 10th century. But who knows?
Randee Trabitz: We’re not sure.
Elizabeth: I didn’t find any in my research.
Carolina: In reading about the production, we could feel your enthusiasm for staging the time travelling that happens in the play. What has that process been like?
Randee: It’s quite a thing—apparently time travel isn’t as easy as I thought. (laughs) It’s been a challenge and it’s been kind of a delicious, creative one. Beth [Elizabeth] has this tendency to write elements into her plays which are like crack for directors. Like, “I don’t know how to do that, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” And time travel is definitely one of those things. I don’t want to give too much away, but there are a few different elements. We’re working with our lead actress, Jamey Hood, who is playing Hrotsvitha and is an extraordinary performer, so capable of many things physically, emotionally, and temperamentally. We’re working with her, our videographer, Shannon Barondeau, and our sound designer, Alma Reyes-Thomas, as well as the rest of the cast who are kind of swirling around the elements to make it possible to happen since Jamey never leaves the stage. So she time travels and stays exactly where she was.
Carolina: There are a lot of parallels between Catholicism & the Theatre/Film Industry being male-controlled spaces. What has that exploration been like? Have there been any surprises in their similarities or differences?
Randee: Even though the play is under 90 minutes, it’s still structurally broken up into 3 acts and 3 places. And we keep discovering more ways that the play refers to itself and we’ve also put in some placeholders in one time period that then refer back to another. I love when there’s something planted early that then we can mine and it comes into fruition sometime later in the play. I think it’s delicious for close-watchers in the audience to start to put those pieces together. We’ve had two very different audiences so far—one that just laughed and laughed, and one that was just very quiet, paying attention, and piecing everything together, and it kind of works on both of those levels.
Elizabeth: The other thing I’ve found in rehearsals is that the play talks about—without explicitly talking about—where these people stand in history at that moment; different eras of history. I find that really interesting and it goes in tandem with what Randee was talking about. Each act talks to the other acts: this is where we were, this is where we are, this is where we’re going; and this is how things changed, and this is how nothing has changed. So there have been lots of discoveries. I knew there was some of that when I wrote it but, of course, you get in the room, and you have these amazing actors and director, and they make all of these discoveries, and when you see it up on its feet, you can physically see the resonance of each time period.
Randee: This has been a long time coming. The play was set to go forward just as the pandemic began; the world has already shifted since then and the play has shifted in response to it, which I think is amazing. There’s a whole other dimension to it now. Ultimately, the way women are placed in the world and the way their voices are listened to is a story as old as time and it’s one that keeps spiraling. In the time-traveling, we’ve been talking a lot about spirals which seems appropriate.
Carolina: How has it changed since the pandemic?
Elizabeth: When I was writing this, Me Too was happening and it’s a component of the piece. And now, Me Too is still very important but it’s not as hot & present an issue as it was in 2017, when there was this cascade of awareness of what women have been going through since the beginning of time. When I wrote the play, that period in the script said, “Present Day” and now I have to put “2017″ or “2018.”
Randee: That’s the part I find really compelling: We’re looking at piece that is now in the past and we’re assuming that we’re post-Me Too but the reality is we’ve just lost interest in talking about it. Something else has supplanted it on the front page but all of those same issues of representation and women’s voices are still problematic. Like Black Lives Matter, we had this swell of interest, but nothing has been fixed. It’s not over, and we’re not progressing beyond that. That’s how the timing has been particularly profound to me.
Elizabeth: It reminds me of a documentary called, “This Changes Everything”—which if you haven’t seen, you should see. It’s fantastic. Basically, they talk a lot about these moments, particularly in movies like Thelma & Louise, where there was all this press saying, “Well this changes everything for women. Now, it’s going to be different.” And not that we haven’t made any progress over the last decades, but we haven’t yet had that moment that changed everything on a level that I think we all crave. In the play, the characters are in time periods where they think it’s that moment when everything is going to change or is changing, and the main character is very obsessed with making change in the world.
Carolina: What has it been like working on this uniquely feminist play with an all-female creative & production team?
Randee: I’ll just out myself and say I’ve never been in that kind of room with all women. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s a new experience on so many levels. There’s a lot of grace, a lot of listening, support, and nobody every raises their voice in anger. It’s not something we have to think about or deal with, which is kind of great. The thing about being my age is that I don’t want to be in this work unless I’m having a good time. And I am having a great time in the room. It’s very pleasant
Elizabeth: From the moment I wrote the play, I wanted this to be all-women, including, ideally, the entire creative team. I didn’t know if people would go along with that request but Skylight & Randee were great to make it happen. When we had our first readthrough… you walk in the room and you go, “Oh my God! It happened!” It’s ephemeral, it’s like alchemical. There’s a vibe in the room that’s just different, and it’s lovely. We have a blast and we make each other laugh. I said to someone else, “There’s never a line for the bathroom because we can use the men and ladies’ rooms in rehearsals.”
Carolina: What do you want audiences to take away after they’ve seen this play?
Elizabeth: I’d love it if people walked away thinking about the play and about history and women and feminism. One of the key messages in the play is that we’ve the same problems for centuries: What’s going to happen in the future? Will there ever be a moment of severe change? I don’t want to say we’re in the exact same spot women were in the 10th century, but we haven’t made as much progress as we would have liked to. And the other part of it is the really human part—there’s a huge discussion about mortality and legacy. What are you leaving behind? What is truly important to you? Those questions come up for the main character and I’m hoping people will be moved by how she responds to them.
Randee: For the longest time, I’ve been aiming at Beth’s reaction to the play when we first did the reading in her living room. We all laughed and laughed and laughed and I looked over at Beth and she was weeping. I want the audience to laugh and enjoy and fall in love with these characters and then, at the end, just burst into tears.
The play speaks to me very profoundly as a creative person and what it is to be an artist—to take it seriously and at what cost? I’m one of the few mothers in the room, and one of my assistants is a young mother of two. I know that it is of great cost to her and her children to be in rehearsal, and I certainly remember those days. It’s a different payment for women than men. That decision to pursue what you care about the most feels like a privilege. So the play definitely speaks to that strongly and loudly. Even with the one man in our room, Gary Grossman, we’ve had this conversation about what it means to still be making theatre at an age when you could have just retired and gone to the beach. That’s the part that makes me cry at the end.
The second play in Skylight’s all femme-penned season, the World Premiere of “No Place Like Gandersheim” by Elizabeth Dement, directed by Randee Trabitz, runs at Skylight Theatre through June 25, 2023. For tickets and information, visit skylighttheatre.org/event/no-place-like-gandersheim/.